All the familiar sounds and sights of the basketball season, and the natural optimism of a new chance to put their skills to work, are a major comfort these days for the Illinois State men’s squad.
Head coach Dan Muller and his program are enjoying the little things after having to confront one of the biggest shocks imaginable - last April’s plane crash that claimed the lives of seven people associated with the program, including assistant coach Torrey Ward. They were returning home from the NCAA Championships in Indianapolis when hostile weather conditions brought the plane down.
Illinois State has constructed a memorial fountain outside Redbird Arena; all teams in the athletic department will wear an honorary patch as well, and the basketball team itself will be acknowledging Ward and the others throughout the campaign. Ever so carefully, the assignment is being tackled of getting back to work while reflecting on what happened in April.
“Looking back, and even when we were in the middle of it, one of the things that helped us all was continuing to have workouts,” said Muller, whose team went 22-13 last year and reached the second round of the NIT in the postseason. “We kept the schedule as is — yeah, there was recruiting that I missed and adjustments, obviously. We decided to do that on a volunteer basis early, but every player wanted to do that. It helped us get through it — one thing I did learn was sitting around and doing nothing is the absolute worst thing you can do. Sometimes, you can’t help it … but our focus was, what can we do to help the players and staff, and to help the families who are affected the most?”
“Once they came back to campus in the summer, in July, it slowly felt more normal. The truth is, even in a tragedy like that, life goes on. It’s not insensitive to the men and families we love, because it doesn’t mean you forget — they will never be forgotten. But we’ve got to figure out how to do the best we can with our responsibilities, and the people we care about. We all stuck together, and we had a lot of people helping.”
When the ball tips off for 2015-16, the lineup should be fortified by point guard Paris Lee, and forward DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell. Lee enters his junior season as a proven distributor of the ball, while knowing his role as a scorer is likely going to increase.
“We’ve been told about that need (of replacing points), and I may need to score more, attack more, and I’m OK with that. Of course, I need to get my teammates involved,” he said. “But as a group, we should be able to put more points on the board. We’ll be more uptempo, and some nights I’ll have it going, and other nights my teammates will. Points will come from different guys, in different ways.
“I’ve been watching clips from practice when we were in Spain (a team trip this summer), and I’m looking for those times I could attack, or when to get the others the ball. To be honest, I really don’t even think about the guy guarding me – I’m looking at my teammates and how they are being defended.”
“The difference from last year to this is he’s improved his body; he’s stronger and can be more physical at both ends. He’s an upperclassman who knows what I want and what I expect,” Muller said. “I trust Paris to lead. His scoring could increase, and he certainly could. But his job is to run the team, and I think he will score as much as the situation dictates it.”
Akoon-Purcell had a terrific debut year at Illinois State last season after transferring from a junior college in Oklahoma. He missed seven games with a hand injury (breaking it on the backboard pad against DePaul), but worked his way back and showed ability inside and outside to score the ball.
“My main focus was to work hard that offseason (before playing at Illinois State). But I’ve been used to being in new places for a while, and I just try to jump right in,” said Akoon-Purcell, who averaged about 13 points and six rebounds per game. “I knew something wasn’t right (when he broke his hand). I tried to keep the right mindset coming back. Plus, Russell Westbrook was coming back from something similar at about the same time, and that motivated me a bit as well.
“I haven’t looked at the numbers much, but I know (field goal percentage) wasn’t the greatest. I know what I need to do. I expect to be more efficient and consistent, and what I did was change my mindset and approach every practice like there’s nothing here being given to me. I want to work for everything.”
“DeVaughn did not have your typical struggles with the transition. To the point he got hurt, he was leading the team in scoring and was first or second in rebounding,” Muller said. “He’s coachable and talented, and naturally played hard. He’s one of the most talented players in our league, can score at many levels — he’s a competitor, and that’s where it starts for every player.”
Going forward, the Redbirds will try to explore the merits of playing a bit faster, and hope that an uptick in shooting efficiency will take root as well. The modern game certainly requires a steady hand from 3-point range.
“We’ve got to create offense, and we can do some of that by our defense and how fast we run. We do have to replace a couple of top scorers, but I think we’ve got four guys who can score in multiple ways, and help each other score as well,” Muller said. “We’ve got length and athleticism, but if you don’t shoot it well from 3, it’s just hard.”
But handling adversity and showing both composure and determination are traits the Redbirds have been forced to evolve ever since April.
“It was so tough at first. We want to use it as motivation, because coach Ward was a motivator for us all,” Akoon-Purcell said. “One thing I’ve noticed is, if I’m not going totally hard, or if I’m hanging my head about something, I think about what he would say.”
“That was definitely a terrible day, terrible week, terrible month, however you want to say it. I try to use it as fuel,” Lee added. “The day it happened, Coach said we could cancel the workout we had scheduled, but he left it up to DeVaughn and me if we should do that. We chose to do it, to get our work in because coach Ward would have wanted us to be in the gym. That was an emotional time … coach Ward is always on our mind.”