NORMAL — Everyone was in their uniform for Media Day activities Thursday at Redbird Arena. That won't be the case for a while this season.
Injuries will limit Illinois State's basketball team to eight scholarship players for the Nov. 11 season opener at Florida Gulf Coast. Redbirds coach Dan Muller said don't expect to see "the true Illinois State team" until the end of December, right around the time the Missouri Valley Conference season begins.
Yet the team's leaders are confident ISU will be just fine despite facing a grueling nonconference schedule.
"I don't think we're focusing on the lack of bodies," said junior guard Keyshawn Evans. "(Older) guys have stepped up and new guys coming in know they're going to have to step up. ... guys will have to play a little more minutes and get a little more tired, but that's not a big issue."
Junior forward Milik Yarbrough, who sat out last season after transferring from Saint Louis, put it more directly:
There will be no excuses.
"Coach Muller told us 80 percent of the people don't care and the other 20 percent are happy we have the problem," said Yarbrough. "I'll play the 4 (power forward) or 5 (center) or whatever we need to do. It's all about winning. That's what I came here to do."
Muller expects freshman point guard Elijah Clarance to be sidelined until the start of December. David Ndiaye, a 7-foot junior center, probably is out until mid-December. Both have stress fractures in their feet.
Also, sophomore guard Matt Hein will miss two to four weeks after suffering a bone bruise in his knee during last Saturday's closed scrimmage against Saint Louis.
"I want guys to understand they have to be themselves. Clearly our numbers are low," said Muller, whose team entertains Lewis at 2 p.m. Sunday in their lone exhibition game. "They'll be low in practice and on game night. We've got to tweak a little bit how aggressive we are defensively and how we attack in transition."
Phil Fayne is the only returning starter from last season's 28-7 squad which set a school record for wins and tied for the MVC regular-season championship. ISU was snubbed for the NCAA Tournament and lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
Muller has praised the leadership shown by the 6-9 Fayne and Evans after losing Paris Lee (the MVC Player of the Year), Tony Wills, MiKyle McIntosh and Deonte Hawkins.
Fayne, who averaged 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds in his first season with ISU, said he embraces being counted on for more production.
"We have a rule to do your job," said Fayne. "When it's time for me to score, it's time for me to score. But when it's time for my teammates to score, we're all going to do our job."
Muller said Fayne, Evans, Yarbrough and Ridgeview High School graduate William Tinsley, a 6-6 junior guard who transferred from Lake Land College, have been ISU's top scorers in practice.
Taylor Bruninga, a 6-8 freshman, gives the Redbirds a "stretch" power forward in the mold of Hawkins who can shoot from the perimeter. Sophomore guard Madison Williams will see an increased role after averaging about 11 minutes per game.
Isaac Gassman, a 6-5 redshirt freshman guard who walked on last season and was awarded a scholarship this season, provides another long-range shooter. The Redbirds added 6-foot guard Jerron Martin as a graduate transfer from Texas Southern in September, a move that became even more significant with the injury situation.
"He has good ball skills and shoots it," said Muller.
Until Clarance returns, the 6-foot Evans will be the primary point guard. He averaged 5.8 points while shooting 38.1 percent from 3-point range last season.
The Redbirds figure to lean heavily on their perimeter shooting in the early part of the season. Muller said there will be times when the Redbirds will have four or five threats from outside the arc playing together.
Defense carried the Redbirds to their first MVC title in 18 years last season. ISU held opponents to 37.9 percent shooting and 61.3 points per game.
While the Redbirds will be without their best rim protector until Ndiaye (1.6 blocks per game) returns, Muller believes defense must remain the key.
"Our best chance to be successful early with this shortened lineup is trying to really be good defensively," he said. "I guess our offense will struggle because of that. You have to pick and choose what you emphasize and what's important to you."