The Illinois basketball team just began official practice a week ago, and yet the season is fast upon us. Exhibition games against Lewis October 29th and Southern Indiana November 2nd will be upon us soon. The first game of the regular season is November 8th against UC Irvine.
Senior forward Mike Davis, who celebrated his 22nd birthday Thursday, says the Orange and Blue scrimmage hasn't lost it's luster in four years.
"It's a fun game for the fans, and it gives us a chance to get up and down rather than practice. Sunday should be a fun day. It's good to get out there and play a real game. We're getting better as a team every day, so we're gonna go out there and see what we've got."
Senior wing Bill Cole reminds this scrimmage is important for the players. There is much competition for playing time, so the scrimmage should highlight several position battles.
"It's big for everyone. Everyone on the team is fighting for minutes right now. This is one of the major things Coach (Weber) will look at because we do everything on this day like we would a game week. We'll have a shoot-around, a pregame meal; this will feel like our first game."
Cole says Weber is emphasizing defense in early drills.
"We're starting to come together. We're doing a lot of defensive drills. Coach is getting us set fundamentally on defense before putting in any plays or offensive sets.
"It's probably 80-90% defense right now, but that's good for this team because we have kind of an odd mix of seniors, freshmen and sophomores. Defense is important. Against good opponents, it will allow us to win even if we're not shooting well."
Davis has learned the importance of defense.
"I think we're getting better on defense and rebounding. That's what the coach has been focusing on. We've got offense, we know we can score the ball. But if we dig down and defend, we'll be a heck of a team to play against.
"Last year there was more focus on offense. We all just focused on trying to outscore teams. We can't do that. We figured that out; the ball doesn't go in every single game. Thus, we've got to focus on defense and rebounding. We've got some guys who are athletic, who are long, just great players who can do that."
Can the Illini be successful defensively?
"We could. We've just got to get that swagger on defense. We all want to score, we all want to get dunks. We need that mentality on defense too, to stop people, shut them down. Like Coach says, we've got to step on people's necks. We've got to crush those teams and get our swagger back."
Senior guard Demetri McCamey hasn't always worked hard on defense, but he knows he must play both ends of the court to be attractive to the pros. He appears to have accepted Weber's challenge.
"Like it or not, you're still gonna have to do it every practice. So you might as well enjoy it while you're out there. We're more mature, so we're looking to get stops and not just try to outscore people. If we can get stops and easy points that way, it will help us."
The team is also practicing pushing the ball and getting out on the break. They can take advantage of their athleticism that way. McCamey expects Illini fans to see changes beginning Sunday.
"It's not gonna be the boring Illini where you walk it up each and every time down the court. We're trying to get some stops, get out and let the crowd enjoy some dunks. Get the momentum rocking in the Assembly Hall."
For freshmen Meyers Leonard, Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand, it will be their first chance to perform in their new uniforms. To a man, they are excited the day has finally arrived.
"I've been able to wear practice jerseys and do everything else, but to put on my uniform and finally play in it will be a good experience," Leonard admits.
Richmond, who committed to Illinois as a high school freshman, has waited impatiently for Sunday to arrive.
"I can't wait."
Senior center Mike Tisdale says the scrimmage will expose things the Illini need to work on before the season begins. But he believes there will be much more positive than negative at the Orange and Blue scrimmage.
"I think the talent's there. We've played pretty hard in practice. If we can continue to do that and focus on defense and getting better, I think we'll be pretty good."