NORMAL — Everyone knew this was going to be a transition season for Illinois State's basketball team.
Four stalwarts who led the program to its first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title in 19 years have left. That includes four-year point guard Paris Lee, who became the first player since 2005 to sweep the MVC's most valuable player and defensive player of the year awards.
Now it seems the transition will take a little longer than expected.
When Dan Muller begins his sixth season as the Redbirds' head coach Saturday at Florida Gulf Coast, he won't be playing with a full hand.
Not even close.
Injuries to 7-foot junior center David Ndiaye and freshman point guard Elijah Clarance, both potential starters out with stress fractures, have left ISU with little margin for error against a difficult nonconference schedule. Both are expected to return sometime in December.
"I don't think you're going to see the true Illinois State team until right around conference play at Christmas. Hopefully it will be sooner," said Muller, who was last season's MVC Coach of the Year. "Guys know we're shorthanded, but that's not an excuse for us. We have to compete in the meantime. I'm excited to do that."
Juniors Phil Fayne and Keyshawn Evans have drawn Muller's praise for taking over the leadership reins from Lee, Tony Wills, MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins. McIntosh (Oregon) and Hawkins (Boston College) took the graduate student transfer route to play in power-five conferences this season.
The 6-foot-9 Fayne is the lone returning starter from a squad that set a school record for wins in a 28-7 season, but was snubbed for an NCAA Tournament at-large bid. ISU lost in the second round of the National Invitation Tournament.
"I expect it will come together pretty quickly," said Fayne. "The newcomers we have are amazing. The redshirts from last year are amazing. We have a lot of great returners. It's going to be a great year."
In Fayne and 6-6 junior forward Milik Yarbrough, the Redbirds have two potential all-MVC first-team players. Yarbrough sat out last season after transferring from Saint Louis. He gives ISU an all-around threat who can score, rebound and handle the ball like a point guard.
The Redbirds figure to shoot a lot of 3-pointers, especially until everyone returns. Muller believes freshman forward Taylor Bruninga will help stretch defenses with his outside shooting ability. Even Fayne, who didn't put up a 3-pointer last season, has extended his range.
Wichita State's departure from the Valley leaves the league race wide open. ISU, picked fourth in the preseason poll, expects to be one of the contenders as it tries to end an NCAA Tournament drought that reaches 20 years in March.
"My hopes and goals and plans are once conference rolls around we're going to be a really good basketball team," said Muller. "That's going to be our focus."