Illinois put four players in double figures, and ten players scored as the Illini pulled away at the end for a ten point victory over Lewis. But they were down 9 points in the first half, and Lewis continued to battle even when the Illini went up in the second half.
Weber summed up the effort afterward.
"It was a little closer for an exhibition, but it was a good learning lesson. Scott (Trost) had his kids playing hard. It was good for us. It was a good experience for our older guys, and a good experience for our younger guys to get a taste of it."
Weber has focused primarily on defense in practice, so he was disappointed in that aspect of the game.
"I was hoping our defense would be a little better because that's what we concentrated on. And our rebounding first half was not very good. We turned them over, and you hope our pressure and our numbers will create those kind of turnovers over the course of time. But we've got to take advantage of it and take care of the ball a lot better.
Illinois senior Mike Davis led all scorers with 15 points, and he added 7 rebounds. He felt the team needed to play better.
"It's the first game, the offense was a little shaky. We didn't do the things we're supposed to do. We escaped with the victory."
Perhaps this game was good preparation for what's to come.
"We needed a good close game," Davis admits. "We're gonna be in New York soon, and all those games are gonna be close. Guys had to play some clutch minutes, play some clutch defense."
Defense and intelligent use of depth should be the primary ingredients for success this year. The Illini will continue to work on defense, but they also must find time to run offense. Weber felt a lack of practice against a half court offense hurt the Illini on this evening.
"They ran offense, which we're not used to in practice. To their credit, they put us on defense 25, 27 seconds to see if we'd break down."
The Illini bolted out to a quick lead and seemed to relax, allowing Lewis to make a game of it. Jereme Richmond, who scored 11 points and added four rebounds and three assists in his college debut, felt the team relaxed and lost focus after that.
"I thought when we got out to that 9-2 lead we were guarding, but we got too comfortable and let those players do whatever they wanted. You can't take away from how hard they played. They ran their stuff pretty good."
Richmond made a good early impression, but six turnovers detracted from his 19 minutes on the floor.
"This is a big adjustment period for me. I was expecting to have a bad game the first game of my career, but my teammates and my coaches helped me get through it. I wasn't too uncomfortable, it was just valuing the basketball. I made too many plays that maybe would have worked last year, but this year it's a lot faster and a lot better."
Weber provided more detail on Richmond's shortcomings, which are likely to be temporary.
"Jereme made some good plays, and then he kept trying to hit home runs. Trying to jam it in five people, they play a packed defense. You've got to be patient and break them down. You can't just go in right away, and that's what he did. It was good for him, it was good for all of our guys."
The problems were not just the result of youthfulness. Illini seniors Davis, Mike Tisdale, Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole all struggled at times. Davis had three turnovers. Tisdale had only 8 points and 3 rebounds in a lackluster effort.
McCamey tried to make the spectacular play without success at times. He scored 12 points but had three turnovers and only 2 assists while sitting out a major portion of the first half due to two unnecessary charging calls. Cole ended with three points and four rebounds.
Weber was undoubtedly referring to the seniors when evaluating the effort.
"It was a little humbling. You go to Media Day, and everybody's patting them on the back. But Lewis doesn't care about that. They come in and play hard. Hopefully this will be one of the turning points that gets us there."
D.J. Richardson scored 10 points and provided four rebounds. Freshman center Meyers Leonard added 4 points and 5 rebounds. Freshman Crandall Head hit four free throws to push his point total to six, and he had a couple assists.
Trost had his team well prepared. He almost pulled off the upset two years ago, and this game had the makings of another close finish until the Illini increased the defensive pressure second half. He knew it was coming.
"I think Illinois's length and athleticism bothered us. I'm sure Bruce had a few words for them at halftime, so we knew they were gonna pick up their pressure. That bothered us quite a bit."
Trost thinks highly of the Illini team despite their first game imperfections.
"I like Bruce's team. This is my third time playing him, and I think this is his most talented team. They've got a lot of ability. They've got great depth. They're long, rangy, athletic. They're gonna be as good as their returnees are."
The Illini are not yet ready to compete for a National Championship, but Weber gave everyone a chance to play good minutes against a well-coached opponent. They will undoubtedly make a big improvement when they play Southern Indiana in their second and last exhibition next Tuesday.