Back in the day, the Illinois basketball team had 5-6 weeks of practice before beginning its nonconference games. But with expanded schedules and preseason tourneys, the Illini have possibly their earliest starting date in history when they take on Lewis Friday night. Only two weeks have elapsed since Midnight Madness.
Ready or not, the Illini begin what they hope is one of their best seasons with exhibition games against Lewis and Southern Indiana. As Coach Bruce Weber reminds, the Illini would be ill-advised to take Lewis lightly.
"We played Lewis two years ago. It came down to the last couple possessions. I think Demetri (McCamey) had to hit a three. A lot of those guys are on this roster.
"Scott (Trost) does a great job there. Their league is one of the best Division II leagues in the country, if not the best, so they have good competition. Six of the top seven are back, and four are juniors and one a senior. You know it's going to be a game where they take it very seriously."
Junior guard Chris McClellan (6'-1", 170) and senior guard Dennis Thomas, Jr. (6'-2", 180) led the team last year in scoring with averages of 14.1 and 13.8 ppg respectively. Junior center Marty Strus (6'-10", 235), junior forward Justin Jarosz (6'-6", 215), junior big Matt Toth (6'-8", 245), and sophomore wing David Bryant (6'-4", 185) all averaged between 8 and 10 points last year. Strus was their leading rebounder.
Exhibition games are a good time to experiment with various lineups and give players a chance to compete for time on the floor. Weber plans to give everyone equal minutes the first half while basing second half decisions on play during the first period.
Much needs to be learned, including what group of five functions best as starters and who does a good job coming off the bench.
"Who's gonna give us a spark, who's happy coming off the bench, who can deal with it? I think that's just as important as who starts. It may be November or December before we have a set rotation. We'll have to play it by ear and figure it out as we go along."
Weber has a great deal of offensive firepower and athleticism at his disposal. But defense and toughness were in short supply last year, so he is using those criteria to determine playing time.
"As a staff, we have to hold defense over them, and the Matto play-hard (chart). That's gonna be the difference between getting 8 minutes a half and 12 minutes a half. We have better competition, practices are more competitive. You've got to get out of your comfort zone or somebody's gonna knock you out of your comfort zone."
Weber regrets an emphasis on offense over defense last season and is determined to transform his present team into an aggressive team known for its defense and intensity.
"Two years ago we sold the Matto. The fans got excited about it, Chester (Frazier). We won a lot of games. But in between we had some ugly moments offensively. Now (last year), mentally you're worried about getting the offense and don't emphasis it as much. All those little things. Then when you get into the season, now you know it's important but maybe it's too late to change it.
"I think we have enough offensive weapons that we'll be able to score. Sometime I've got to put time into offense. But we're gonna win early if we have a good foundation on the defensive end and playing hard."
The freshmen have added a tough, competitive mentality to the team according to Weber.
"I think we're better, we're stronger. The new guys add toughness to us. Jereme (Richmond), even though he isn't the strongest, he is physical and has great balance and a presence inside. Definitely Meyers (Leonard) is physical and has a presence. And I think all the older guys have made strides. When you get up against a really physical team, that's when you find out."
"Jereme at times, Crandall can give us some looks if he'll slow down. Brandon, if he'll take care of the ball, can get us into our offense. He's not gonna be a quick zipper kind of point guard; he's a little more methodical. For Joseph Bertrand's sake, I hope down the road he can give us some minutes. But we're trying to limit his thinking about stuff and just let him use his athleticism."
The fans won't see a finished product on the court Friday night. They will have had only two days to work on the Assembly Hall floor counting the Orange & Blue scrimmage, so the shooting might not be up to par. And all teams need more than two weeks to function as a well-oiled machine. But Weber figures his team's athleticism will help early in the season.
"We have a lot to work on, especially on the defensive end. But you see there's athleticism there. We have depth. Hopefully we can get up and down the court and create some turnovers, do some things as we progress."