NORMAL — Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller figures his players have earned a chance at being a "normal college student" for a little while before hitting the court again.

Muller, beginning his third season as ISU coach, said his team enjoyed a productive summer during two hour-per-week workouts with the coaches as well as academically.

Players are back on campus again as fall semester classes began Monday. But Muller said the Redbirds won't begin individual workouts until after Labor Day, although the players are working out on their own and participating in pickup games.

The NCAA allows teams two hours per week before practice officially begins. Coaches can work with up to four players at a time until Sept. 15 before the whole team can get together.

"It's a long year, especially with earlier practices," said Muller. "We've got plenty of time."

ISU welcomed five newcomers, which includes four junior college transfers and Nick Banyard from New Mexico, along with six returning veterans and two players (Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh) who sat out last season, for what Muller called "very productive" summer workouts.

"MiKyle and Teddy (Hawkins) had seen some things and knew a little bit what to expect, but they're still developing those habits," said Muller. "Luckily our five new guys are all older and came from good programs and really came with very good work ethics and great attitudes.

"I would say they're a very mature group on and off the court. That helped a lot in the transition stuff. They were able to take the difficult weight sessions and practices and not let the physical and mental demands overwhelm them like some new guys do."

A year ago, ISU only had two returning players. Coaches had to go at a slower pace in workouts in the summer and fall to make sure everyone understood what was expected.

Seniors Bobby Hunter, John Jones and Daishon Knight, along with sophomores Paris Lee, Reggie Lynch and Tony Wills, now have a year of Division I basketball under their belts. ISU went 18-16 and advanced to the semifinals of the College Basketball Invitational last season.

That has put the Redbirds "way, way, way ahead" of where they were at this point last year, said Muller.

"The biggest reason we're ahead is because of the somewhat establishment of our culture and expectations," he said.

"Over half our guys know what to expect and what's expected of them and know what we stand for here as far as our academic importance and the way we're supposed to treat and respect people, in addition to how hard we're supposed to work on the court."

ISU is allowed to begin official practices on Oct. 5, which is 42 days before the Nov. 16 opener against Utah State at Redbird Arena. Teams can have 30 practices before the first game.

The Redbirds started on the first day last year and Muller thought that was too long. So he will start sometime after Oct. 5.

"Part of it is we have veterans. We'll get the same number of practice days in," he said. "Six weeks is a long time to practice before the first game. I don't feel as much need for that we have to start right away."

ISU's practices will be earlier in the day this fall. Because of the players' class schedules, Muller said the Redbirds will practice in the mornings.

"I'll be interested to see how I like it," said Muller, who never had that routine before as a player or coach. "We have to do it so it doesn't matter. We'll be fine. We get to practice the same amount of time, only at a different time of day."

Muller confirmed ISU is looking into taking a foreign trip next summer, which the NCAA allows every four years. The Redbirds' last trip was to Canada in August 2011.

"They are really, really, really beneficial," he said. "Maybe the biggest thing is your players sharing experiences with each other and bringing them together. That might be as valuable as anything."

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Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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