Milik Yarbrough action from practice

Milik Yarbrough goes through an Illinois State basketball practice last season. Yarbrough, a 6-foot-6 transfer from Saint Louis, is expected to play a leading role this season for the Redbirds, who officially begin practice Sunday night.

COURTESY ISU ATHLETICS

NORMAL — Milik Yarbrough remembers sitting down for lunch with Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller about 18 months ago. The conversation turned to Yarbrough's weight.

"He was, like, we want you to get down to 225," said Yarbrough. "I said 210 or 215, and he said you're not going to get there."

As ISU prepares for its first official practice Sunday night, Yarbrough smiled when revealing his current weight of 213 pounds. When the 6-foot-6 junior forward joined the Redbirds last summer after transferring from Saint Louis, Yarbrough tipped the scales at 254.

"I'm seeing different things I haven't seen myself do since freshman or sophomore year in high school," said Yarbrough, who practiced with ISU last season but couldn't play in games per NCAA transfer rules. "I'm moving faster and jumping higher." 

Yarbrough's physical condition has helped ease Muller's mind. Yarbrough played a lot of minutes (while weighing 235 pounds) for two seasons with the Billikens in the Atlantic 10 Conference and is expected to be a major contributor in his first year at ISU.

But the sixth-year ISU coach has plenty of other concerns after graduating four starters from last season's 28-7 squad which tied for the Missouri Valley Conference regular-season championship.

Junior college guard Zach Copeland didn't gain his eligibility and won't play with the Redbirds this season. Freshman point guard Elijah Clarance will be sidelined six to eight weeks with a stress fracture in his left foot. That puts Clarance's availability for the Nov. 11 season opener at Florida Gulf Coast in question.

With seven newcomers on the roster who didn't play with the Redbirds last season, Muller and his staff have to alter practices compared to those with last year's veteran unit. Teams can practice on 30 of the 42 days before their first game.

"There's always a lot of teaching, but it takes longer to teach," said Muller. "When it's brand new, it's different than when it's kind of review ... that will slow down how quickly we will put things in or how complicated we can get early."

Muller said he's pleasantly surprised through this summer and fall with the leadership being provided by junior forward Phil Fayne, the only returning starter, and junior guard Keyshawn Evans, a key reserve last season. 

But Muller believes his team is not close to being tough enough and must become more consistent with its energy level and competitiveness.

"They're good guys and we're pleased with how coachable they are, but those are things we have a long way to go," he said.

Yarbrough's energy is off the charts thanks to his superb physical condition. Muller plans to initiate much of the Redbirds' offense through Yarbrough, whose ballhandling skills will allow him to act like a point forward.

"It was just a lot of discipline, just me getting in the gym by myself," said Yarbrough, who has gone home only once to upstate Zion in the last five months. "It wasn't so much me eating the right things, but changing what I was eating. Instead of chips, it was a banana.

"It was just me really committing to it and if I get this weight (down) I don't know what I can be. That's exactly what coach Muller told me, no one knows what you'll be if you lost the weight."

Yarbrough made the Atlantic 10 All-Rookie team as a freshman, averaging 10 points, 4.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game while starting 22 of 32 games. He contributed 7.7 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.4 assists as a sophomore with two starts in 27 games. 

Muller likes how "dynamic" Yarbrough is with the ball, especially being in the best shape of his life.

After having to sit out games last season and going through a difficult emotional time with the death of his father, former ISU standout Del Yarbrough, this season represents a fresh start for Yarbrough.  

"Milik has a ton of talent and one of the guys we need to be one of our better players, and he should be," said Muller. "He has the most in-game experience on the team. Especially with Elijah out, he's our best playmaker. He's really talented. I think he's going to have a big year for us."

Tourney moved to South Carolina: Due to the devastation of Hurricane Maria, the Puerto Rico Tip-Off has been moved to Conway, S.C., it was announced Thursday.

ISU opens the eight-team tourney at 10:30 a.m. (CST) on Nov. 16 against South Carolina at the HTC Student Recreation and Convocation Center on the campus of Coastal Carolina. The Redbirds meet Boise State or UTEP the next day before finishing on Nov. 19.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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