Late start doesn't deter Dan Muller

July, 19, 2012
Tim Jankovich agonized over his decision to become Larry Brown's coach-in-waiting at SMU.

It took so long that it could have put Illinois State's 2012-13 season, which could end with an NCAA tournament bid, in jeopardy.

But the Redbirds saved face by finding an alumnus who was ready to become a head coach in Vanderbilt assistant Dan Muller.

Muller's first head coaching job, at his alma mater no less, has eased plenty of angst.

But his May 8 start date has been a challenge.

Here are five key issues he has had to deal with:

How did Muller handle losing his starting point guard to SMU?

Nic Moore, who averaged 28.5 minutes a game as a freshman, left with Jankovich. Muller granted Moore his release and was as cooperative as possible.

"Three weeks later, we signed a point guard,'' said Muller of Canadian Kaza Keane. "He was one of the only ones left available.''

Muller said the Redbirds don't have much depth at the position, even with Keane. He said he'll use Anthony Cousin at the 2, even though he was much more of a combo guard last season.

"He's not a true point, but he's a good player,'' Muller said of Cousin.

How did Muller handle his relationship with assistant Rob Judson after he lost out to him for the head coaching job?

He hired him.

"I tried to talk to Rob and told him what I was looking for,'' said Muller. "I told him what was important to me and that we had to be on the same page. We've developed a relationship. I wanted to make sure Rob understood what I wanted and after he understood that I was fine with that.''

Jankovich's late move meant his coaching staff could have been unemployed for next season. Brown already had his staff intact at SMU. So Muller saved Judson's job with the hire. He also had to consider the other two assistants, Anthony Beane and Paris Parham. But both men landed on their feet. Beane is now at Southern Illinois and Parham got a gig at Illinois.

"I felt bad for those guys and talked to both of them, but it all worked out for everybody,'' Muller said. "It was tough since it was so late in the game, but they ended up getting good spots in the same state.''

What were Muller's thoughts on taking over a veteran team in May?

Other than Moore, the Redbirds return their core -- Tyler Brown, Cousin, Jon Ekey and Jackie Carmichael.

But Muller had to ensure that they bought into him -- and his system -- before the summer hit. He didn't have much time. He got the job during final exam week, so everybody on the team was gone within three or four days of his hiring.

"So I got on the road and traveled and saw every player who was not on campus and their families,'' Muller said. "It took me a week and a half. I was also trying to get a point guard. I went and saw everybody. I tried to develop a level of trust. I thought that was really important.''

The workouts, now allowed with current players for two hours a week if they're in summer school, has been a huge plus. "They get a chance to see me on the court,'' Muller said. "That part has been invaluable. We're pretty far along on the trust factor.''

How did Muller finish the nonconference schedule?

He had four games to add, and the Redbirds needed an upgrade. "I had to beef up the schedule,'' he said. "They hadn't played a tough schedule in the past, and there weren't any [high-profile] road games.''

Muller said he scheduled four: "At Louisville for a buy game, scheduled a home-and-home with Dayton, starting at Dayton, scheduled Austin Peay at home and the last game isn't finalized yet but it will be with a home-and-home with Drexel, starting at Drexel.''

That's pretty good for a team that has visions of the NCAA tournament.

Illinois State's problems in the past have included a weak nonconference slate. Last season, the Redbirds fell to Creighton in overtime in the Missouri Valley Conference title game. They played two more overtime games, wining at Ole Miss and losing at Stanford, both in the NIT, to finish 21-14 overall.

Illinois State will also play in the South Padre Island tournament, along with UAB, TCU and Northwestern.

This means the Redbirds will now play a Big East favorite (Louisville), a CAA favorite (Drexel) and at least two postseason teams in Dayton and Northwestern.

They also get Wyoming at home in the MWC-MVC Challenge and will play on the road in the BracketBuster event in February.

As a first-time head coach, how did Muller organize everything?

He leaned heavily on his experience working for Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt.

"I was lucky that I was familiar here and that I didn't have to sign 12 kids or kick any bad kids off the team,'' said Muller. "I came into a good situation and I was taught how to run a program by Coach Stallings. I hired guys who were familiar with the Valley [Dana Ford was at Wichita State last season and Judson]. Now I'm just adding my own twist, recruiting and developing relationships. That's it.''

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer


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