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Illinois State head men's basketball coach Dan Muller talks to Josh Jefferson (11) and Matt Hein during their exhibition game against Lewis on Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2018, at Redbird Arena. ISU won, 80-58.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Josh Jefferson has quickly proven he belongs on the Division I stage. Now Jefferson is eager to experience his first road game as an Illinois State basketball player. 

Saturday's atmosphere for a 7 p.m. tipoff against Belmont at the 5,000-seat Curb Event Center should be different than when Jefferson was at Lake Land College in Mattoon the last two years.

"There were some games there were probably 15 people there," said Jefferson. "If someone sneezed, we could say 'Bless you' from the bench."

The 6-foot-2 Jefferson has been a blessing thus far for the Redbirds. He sank five 3-pointers and scored 17 points as ISU won its season opener with a 74-66 victory over Florida Gulf Coast on Tuesday at Redbird Arena.

Jefferson came off the bench to begin the game, but ISU coach Dan Muller had him start the second half.

"He's earning more and more minutes, but more importantly he's earning the trust of his teammates and the coaching staff by his play on both ends," said Muller. "We knew he was very talented, and he played really well."

Muller has told Jefferson he wishes the junior practiced as well as he has played in the two exhibition games and the opener. 

Jefferson understands.

"It's an adjustment, but my teammates are helping me out with that telling me the level to where I need to be," he said. "They're pushing me."

ISU didn't have much idea what Florida Gulf Coast was going to run with a first-year head coach, but that shouldn't be the case against Belmont.

Rick Byrd is in his 33rd year as the Bruins' coach and ranks fifth among active coaches with 778 wins. Belmont, which is picked to win the Ohio Valley Conference in the league's preseason poll, has posted 251 conference wins since 2003, tied for first nationally with Kansas.

Muller is no stranger to Byrd. The ISU coach spent 12 years in Nashville as an assistant for former Redbird coach Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt, and the two staffs knew each other well.

In fact, Vanderbilt helped open the Curb Event Center in 2003 when the Commodores beat the Bruins.

Muller said Byrd's team are always "incredibly solid."

"They can really score the ball because of their skill level and also because Coach Byrd is great at running actions to take advantage of whatever defense he's going to face," he said. "They're unselfish and as they get older they don't beat themselves."

Outside of returning starters Dylan Windler and Kevin McClain from a 24-9 squad that won the OVC regular-season title, this is a young Belmont team. Belmont has 10 newcomers (four true freshman, five redshirt freshman, one first-year sophomore), the most ever under Byrd in the NCAA Division I era.

Windler will be among the best players that ISU sees this season. The 6-8 left-hander can score inside and outside. The OVC Preseason Player of the Year was the only player in the country to average 17.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists per game and shoot 40 percent on 3-pointers last season.

This is the second straight game where ISU has no film to study of the opponent. This is Belmont's season opener and the Bruins didn't have an exhibition game, opting instead for scrimmages against Wofford and Evansville.

"They won't change a ton (from previous years), but Coach Byrd will always have wrinkles," said Muller.

This will be a special trip for Muller. He met his wife, Melissa, in Nashville and their son, Sib, has moved back there. Muller's sister-in-law also lives in Nashville.

In addition, Muller expects Stallings and another former ISU head coach, Tom Richardson, to attend the game. James Strong, who was on Stallings' staff with Muller at Vanderbilt, is an assistant coach at Belmont while Dan Ryan, a three-year manager at ISU for Muller, is the Bruins' director of operations.  

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Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson



Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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