NORMAL — Waking up before the sun comes up is no fun for Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller, either.
“It’s tough to get college coaches out at 6 in the morning,” he said. “I don’t like it any better than they do.”
Yet Tyler Brown is willing to accept the tradeoff for missing a little sleep.
“As players we don’t like getting up that early, but we see we’re winning and getting better so I’ll take that any day,” said the Redbirds’ senior guard.
Muller began holding morning practices a couple days a week after a loss to Bradley on Jan. 29. Since then, ISU is 4-0 heading into Sunday’s showdown against Missouri Valley Conference-leading Wichita State at 7:05 p.m. at Redbird Arena.
The players don’t think so.
“We’ve embraced it because it helps us. Each time we come to the gym, we’re getting better no matter what time Coach tells us to come in,” said junior guard Bryant Allen. “We’re having fun with it. Some of us might not like to practice (in the morning), but we’re excited because our confidence is going up. It’s helping us out a lot.”
NCAA rules limit teams to 20 hours of practice per week during the season, but that can be divided up any way a coach sees fit. Teams also have to take one day off per week while class is in session.
Muller began devoting more practice time to defense after the Redbirds started 0-6 in the Valley. ISU began to see its defense improve, but the offense wasn’t clicking quite like it did earlier in the season.
So after the 83-77 loss in Peoria, Muller decided to bring the team in during the morning. The players said those sessions have mainly focused on defense. Then, during the regular afternoon practice, the Redbirds began to fine-tune their offense.
ISU has averaged 82.8 points in their last four games and looked much more efficient on the offensive end. The Redbirds have improved to 16-10 overall and 7-7 in the league, tied for fifth place with Evansville and only a game out of fourth with four Valley games left starting with the Shockers (21-5, 10-4).
“I think it’s helped a ton. We’ve improved on the court. We needed the work,” said Muller. “To improve your offense or defense you have to practice.
“It’s helped our focus, helped us understand how hard it is to be great and the sacrifices and discipline you have to have to be a consistent program and team.”
The players don’t want to pull the plug on morning practices.
“It’s something we need to continue to do,” said Brown. “It’s working.”
However, Muller also knows this is usually around the time when coaches begin to worry about the wear and tear of a long season.
Teams have been practicing since mid-October. With the Redbirds shortening their rotation, many players are starting to log heavy minutes.
“There is a balance, and I have to make sure I’m aware and alert to that,” said Muller. “We’ve had days where we practice for 20 minutes. I told them at the beginning of the year there’s a fine line between getting out of shape and being fatigued and being fresh. They have to trust me that I’ll never wear them down.”