Illinois played four quarters of intrasquad basketball Sunday afternoon for a half-full Assembly Hall crowd. Shooting was spotty, and there were far too many turnovers. But the Illini have only been practicing a little over a week. As coach Bruce Weber reminds, they haven't worked on their half court offense yet.
"Not much. Almost none to be honest. I wrote down the stuff we emphasized in practice the first week, and I didn't have any offensive stuff other than sprint out. I said, 'At least on offense have some space. Give yourselves a chance to make a play.'
"It's been the least of my worries. Somewhere we're gonna have to focus on it, but right now I've got to get our defense down and our transition. I think we can live off of that early if we're good at it."
There is no doubt the Illini have the horses to play tight man to man defense and get easy baskets in transition. Freshmen Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head took advantage of their ability to run the floor, as did several others. Leonard led all scorers with 23 points, hitting 9 of 13 shots mostly from point blank range while adding 5 of 7 free throws.
Leonard was excited with his first opportunity to play before a partisan crowd at the Assembly Hall.
"Just the overall atmosphere. Being able to play with my teammates on this court for the first time, and kind of being coached by them for the first time is the main thing. I played better than I thought I would. I was kind of nervous when first coming in, which is natural.",/P>
Weber was pleasantly surprised by Leonard's output.
"He has struggled probably as much as anybody in the regular practices, just figuring it out. But he got here and the lights turned on. He got more involved offensively than in a lot of the practices.
"But some of that is conditioning, guys not guarding where they're supposed to be...he got some open looks. But he played very well. I think his is a matter of learning the game. He can run. That's one of the first things you see. He can run like a deer, and he jumps pretty well.
"His (problem) is more the half court, figuring the game. He's kind of played at one speed, his speed. We're gonna hopefully change that over the course of time."
Leonard added 7 rebounds and two steals on the day. However, he and fellow plebe Head each had five turnovers, something Weber will undoubtedly need to correct. Head had 11 points, mostly in transition, and played solid individual defense. Weber wants to slow him down a little.
"Crandall does some good things, but then he does some unforced errors. He gets going too fast and tries to make the tough play all the time. But he got some things done. He's active, gets steals since he's long."
Freshman Jereme Richmond had a solid debut with 11 points, five rebounds, two blocks and a steal. His 8 assists tied Demetri McCamey for the lead in that department. He also had three turnovers. He said afterward that fatigue was a factor since the Assembly Hall floor is larger than the Ubben facility where they practice.
Weber discussed Richmond's progress to date.
"Jereme is very good with the ball, he's very good underneath the hoop. It's that in between without the ball where he's got to make some improvement."
Mike Davis scored 21 points on 9 for 16 shooting, and he added 11 rebounds. D.J. Richardson got hot from three, hitting half of his eight attempts. He ended with 17 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists. McCamey was cold from the field, hitting only 4 of 11 on the night. His six free throws helped him total 15 points to go with his 8 assists and three turnovers.
Mike Tisdale and Brandon Paul each scored 12 points. Tisdale had an uncharacteristically cold shooting night, hitting only 3 of 11 from the field. But he was perfect in four free throw tries. He also grabbed 10 rebounds. Paul had six rebounds, three assists, three steals and three turnovers.
Tyler Griffey added 7 points, hitting only 2 of 7 shots. Bill Cole was 1 for 7 from the field, but he had 6 rebounds. Joseph Bertrand had two points on 1 of 6 shooting, but he grabbed six rebounds, had four assists and a steal to counter three turnovers.
Weber said he is no closer to deciding on a backup point guard to spell McCamey at times. There are several candidates.
"You've got a lot more guys who can handle the basketball than we did last year. Brandon Paul, Bertrand, Crandall, Jereme, it'll ease the pressure on Demetri and not make us so one-dimensional. Who is the guy yet, I don't know. At least we have some options. That'll evolve as we get into games."
It is obvious Weber has the luxury of quality depth this year. Keeping guys fresh will be an asset.
"When they get tired they don't run like they should. That's when we've got to do a good job and get somebody else in there. Don't hesitate to put somebody else in. We're gonna have to keep them relaxed and excited and happy and energized. If they don't have that energy, put somebody else in."
Weber reminds the first exhibition game is this Friday evening against Lewis. This scrimmage will help him prepare his players for the start of the season.
"We have three practices and then a game. The key is what they do with those three days. It was a good learning tool. We'll watch the tape."