NORMAL — Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller always figured he might have to shorten his rotation this season, much like he has done in the past.
Trying to find court time for 10 players, while maintaining chemistry and a good rhythm, is a difficult task.
After losing five of the last seven games — and allowing 17-0 and 25-0 runs in the last two — now appears the right time for a Redbird change heading into the second half of the Missouri Valley Conference season.
Muller said he will go with an eight-man rotation, and occasionally use nine, beginning with Saturday's 9 p.m. game against Valley newcomer Valparaiso at Redbird Arena. The contest will be nationally televised on ESPN2.
"In a lot of ways we were playing better basketball before we got healthy," said Muller, whose team has dropped to 10-11 overall and 4-5 in the Valley. "I don't think necessarily it is the guys we are playing compared to the guys who weren't playing (when hurt)."
Freshman guard Elijah Clarance missed most of the nonconference schedule with a stress fracture and then severe blisters on his feet. Junior center David Ndiaye sat out until the second conference game with a stress fracture.
Muller wouldn't say what players will be out of the rotation against Valparaiso (11-11, 2-7), which sits in last place in the league. He said a ninth guy could play five to 10 minutes in a game, depending on foul trouble, but might not play in other games.
"Playing 10 guys is hard. It's hard because we have a bunch of guys who are about even," said Muller. "I'm picking one thing to be the tiebreaker in those, and we'll go with that."
ISU junior Phil Fayne remains confident the Redbirds, who are in seventh place in the league, can work their way back into the upper division with nine games left, including five at Redbird Arena.
"I love my teammates and have full faith in my teammates that we're going to turn this around really quickly," he said. "There's a few small things we need to tweak."
Muller knows one thing he will tweak after watching Indiana State and Northern Iowa put away the Redbirds in the first half with devastating runs.
"I've got to call timeouts sooner. That's on me," he said. "Hopefully that helps. I've called timeouts during both stretches, but probably waited too long.
"Our mentality needs to improve. Once a team makes three shots in a row or goes on an 8-0 run, we drop our heads. That's where I need to call that timeout."
After watching film of Wednesday's 83-72 loss at UNI, Muller said he was encouraged by his team's effort level and ability to fight back and trim a 31-point deficit to 12 with three minutes left.
The players agreed.
"I feel we played harder than we did during the Indiana State game (an 84-54 loss a week ago), but we still have to play better defense and play better offense and make shots," said ISU sophomore Madison Williams, who sank three 3-pointers during Wednesday's second half.
Valparaiso might be more desperate for a win than the Redbirds. The Crusaders have lost four straight, including the last two at home to Loyola (70-54) and Evansville (75-65).
After winning three straight Horizon League regular-season titles, and five of the last six, Valpo has found the Valley to be more challenging.
It didn't help the Crusaders that 6-foot-6 junior forward Joe Burton, a transfer from Oklahoma State who was averaging 11.5 points in the first 10 games, was dismissed from school for academic reasons in late December.
"The Horizon League was just different philosophies at times," said second-year Valpo coach Matt Lottich. "Teams wanted to shoot quick and play offense. That's just not the case (in the Valley). Every team in this league prepares similarly to the way we have."
This will be the first meeting for ISU against Valpo since 1981. The Redbirds will make their first visit to the Athletics-Recreation Center, known as the ARC, in northwest Indiana on Feb. 11.