NORMAL — After losing a 14-point second-half lead at Tulsa in early December last season, Dan Muller's message to his Illinois State basketball team was clear:
Keep guarding like that and it's going to be a long season.
Somewhere on the flight back to Bloomington-Normal, the Redbirds heeded their coach's warning and underwent a drastic change. Suddenly — like the very next game — everyone started defending like Paris Lee and Tony Wills.
What could have been a long season turned into a historic one with a school-record 28 victories and ISU's first Missouri Valley Conference championship since 1998.
The Redbirds held opponents to 37.9 percent field goal shooting (a school record) and 61.3 points per game. That ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, nationally.
The glue to that defense, guards Lee and Wills, are now gone. So are forwards Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh.
What remains, though, is a firm commitment to D. That started this summer when the Redbirds began two hours of workouts per week allowed by the NCAA.
"I believe these (new) guys have what it takes," said 7-foot junior center David Ndiaye, who led ISU in blocked shots last season. "As we go through games we'll get better, and I hope we get to the point where we have the same defense we had last year because I love defense ... we're known for our defense."
The Redbirds' defense will be tested early without Ndiaye and freshman point guard Elijah Clarance. Both are sidelined until December with stress fractures.
With only eight scholarship players available for the season opener Saturday at Florida Gulf Coast, Muller said he will "have to tweak" how aggressive the defense is to keep certain players in the game.
"We can't get in foul trouble. Me and Phil (Fayne) have to elevate our games to a new level," said junior forward Milik Yarbrough, who sat out last season after transferring from Saint Louis. "We have to go out there and be monsters on the boards, Phil has to score the ball, and I have to score, pass and rebound.
"We have to elevate our games. I have no problem doing that. This is what I've been waiting on."
Fayne also is ready for the opportunity to become more of a priority on offense and defense. The 6-9 forward is the only starter back from last season.
But Fayne knows he can't do that sitting on the bench for long stretches with fouls. He fouled out of two games last season and often was forced to the bench for extended periods in the first half with two fouls.
"Defensively it's just knowing when to jump and when to not jump, keeping my hands up," said Fayne. "I've worked a lot on my defense, sliding my feet."
Laughing and remembering a former teammate's penchant for fouls, Fayne said. "I have to stay out of foul trouble because I don't want to be the MiKyle guy."
Junior guard Keyshawn Evans, who moves from a top reserve to a starting spot, said it wouldn't be fair to compare this season's Redbirds to last year on the defensive end.
"You had Tony and P-Lee, two all-league defenders. It's hard to really replace that," said Evans. "We have to bring the coaching they gave to me and Madison (Williams) and all the guys who came back and move it on to the new guys and try to keep it going."
The 6-3 Williams learned a lot in his freshman season from watching Lee and Wills.
Lee was the head of the Redbirds' defense, pressuring the ball coming up the court. He set a career school record with 248 steals, while the wiry Wills usually defended the opponent's best perimeter scorer.
"We can come close (to being the same kind of defense). We have to keep practicing and going hard," said Williams. "The team last year, we went hard all the time. If we continue to work hard and focus, we can be as good."
Clarance said he has watched a lot of highlights of Lee on defense and will try to bring that same mentality when he gets on the court, probably in early December.
"For me it's about not taking any plays off," said Clarance, who is four inches taller than Lee. "I feel I'm pretty good on the ball defending, but sometimes I'm slacking off the ball. It's me being more aware and active, and I'll be fine."
Before ISU's lone exhibition game last Sunday, Muller said the Redbirds had worked primarily on their man-to-man defense. ISU used its man defense in the first half before breaking out its zone for about 10 minutes to start the second half.
Lewis shot 36.7 percent from the field, so maybe there is a carryover effect from last season.
"It will come down to the opponent," said Muller. "You have certain players who played one more than the other in high school or junior college and certain players who have a natural defensive feel."