NORMAL — Dan Muller sensed during Sunday night's practice that Illinois State's basketball team didn't want its season to end.
When the Redbirds found out there was no bid coming from the National Invitation Tournament, practice came to a halt. Immediately, the ISU coach and his players began focusing on the 2018-19 season.
"Last night we had a terrific practice," said Muller during a Monday news conference. "It helps me going into the offseason. It kind of shows where their mindsets are. They're really close. They wanted to keep playing and the opportunity."
Muller knows the opportunity for a banner season, which could end an NCAA Tournament drought that has reached 20 years, exists beginning next fall.
ISU didn't have any seniors on an 18-15 squad that tied for second place in the Missouri Valley Conference and lost in the MVC Tournament championship game to Loyola.
Whether any players leave, Muller said he isn't certain. ISU is on spring break this week. Muller said he will have a team meeting when they return before holding individual conferences with each player.
Muller said he expects 6-foot-6 junior forward Milik Yarbrough to put his name in the NBA Draft. That would allow Yarbrough, who was watched by scouts throughout the season, to work out for teams and get an evaluation if or where he would be selected.
Players can withdraw their names before the draft to preserve their collegiate eligibility. Yarbrough was an all-MVC first-team pick after being one of only three players nationally to average at least 16.6 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game.
"The biggest thing I've talked to Milik about is making a smart decision for him and his future," said Muller. "My job is to help him as best I can navigate that and get information and help him make a smart decision. I think he can get a lot better, which is the exciting part."
MiKyle McIntosh worked out for the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors last spring before deciding to stay in college. He then took the graduate transfer route and left ISU for Oregon.
Muller said he doesn't believe Keyshawn Evans, who averaged 15.2 points and led the team with 91 3-pointers, will need knee surgery, although the Redbird coach said he will consult team doctors.
Evans missed three games with a left knee injury that first occurred in the preseason and happened twice during the season. He played the last seven games with a brace.
Yarbrough, Evans and 6-9 junior forward Phil Fayne (15.6 ppg, 7.4 rpg), an all-MVC second-team choice, carried the scoring load for the Redbirds most of the way. William Tinsley, a 6-6 junior guard, found his 3-point shooting stroke late and averaged 11.6 points in the final nine games.
Tinsley was the only player who saw action in every game. The Redbirds, who lost most of their MVC championship squad from the previous season, were without junior center David Ndiaye and freshman guard Elijah Clarance at the start of the season because of injuries.
The injury bug continued for the next couple months.
"I'm really proud what the guys fought through," said Muller. "If you would have told me in August we had these games missed and this number of things and we had the record we had and made the championship game, I'm not sure I would have believed you.
"It's a credit to the players. I think we saw a lot of growth. Guys got better and attitudes continue to be good and guys got more mature."
Transfers Zach Copeland and Matt Chastain will be eligible next season. Copeland is a 6-4 guard from City College of San Francisco who Muller said "is dying to get on that court." Chastain, a LeRoy High School graduate, is a 6-6 forward who spent his first year at Loyola.
Muller said, depending on if players leave this spring, ISU could add "a guard who can shoot and a big man" for next season. The Redbirds are currently looking at junior college players for those roles if needed, he added.
ISU has only three games left to schedule for next season. The ISU coach said he may have to re-examine his scheduling philosophy in the future as at-large bids to the NCAA and NIT are shrinking for mid-major schools.
The Redbirds had the 10th most difficult nonconference schedule in the country.
Midway through the season, Muller said he let some things slide earlier because he had an inexperienced team and the Redbirds were winning. That won't be the case when ISU opens practice in the fall.
"It's a balancing act every year, how hard you are on them, how much rope you give them to learn, how much you push them," he said. "With a veteran team returning next year, certainly our intensity will increase and our expectation of understanding the daily grind will increase. The acceptance of not perfect behavior will be lower."