Illini Seeking Identity After Exhibitions

The Fighting Illini basketball team continued it's unimpressive ways with a too-close 76-67 win over Southern Indiana in their final tuneup for the upcoming season. The Illini are searching for their identity. Are they going to improve their defense and fast break teams to oblivion, or must they focus on methodical half court offense?

Illinois played with more energy Tuesday night against Southern Indiana than in its first exhibition against Lewis University. But it didn't take full advantage of its athleticism and depth. The Screaming Eagles were a small but extremely scrappy outfit that played free and loose and had nothing to lose.

Both Illini exhibition victories were uninspired. Illini coach Bruce Weber expressed afterward how many fans feel after the two games.

"Obviously, it was a little disappointing. I thought we would have made some strides. The other day we struggled with a team that was disciplined and made you guard, and today we struggled with a team that was very quick at all the positions."

The Illini shot much better than Southern Indiana, but they only garnered nine more rebounds and gave up far too many offensive boards. And the Illini turned the ball over 23 times, often giving up easy points in the process.

"We've got to look at ourselves as a staff on what we're trying to do," Weber bemoaned. "We thought we had athletes and depth and could run. But you've got to rebound to run, that's one thing. They got 18 offensive rebounds and out hustled us for some balls.

"The field goal percentage was not our problem. But we keep turning it over and giving them too many second chance opportunities. Those are things that plagued us last year. We've got to figure out how to solve it."

Mike Tisdale, who led all scorers with 21 points, agreed.

"It's been a little bumpy so far. We've had a lot of turnovers and given up a lot of points. It's just a matter of getting in the flow, doing what we need to be doing on defense and offense. A lot of their points came from our turnovers. It doesn't help us to give them easy baskets."

Brandon Paul had a much better result in his second exhibition than the first. He stuffed the stat sheet with 10 points, 5 rebounds, two assists, two blocks, four steals and just two turnovers. He hit some key buckets down the stretch and played with more confidence and poise than his freshman year. He believes a solution can be found.

"If we just play our game, we won't let teams rush us. We were forcing things and trying to make the big plays. We should just make the right play.

"If we just play Illinois basketball we'll be fine. But we were letting them get in our head and make quick decisions. If we just take our time and get into our offense, not too many teams will be able to stop us."

Senior point guard Demetri McCamey is expected to lead this team, but he hasn't performed up to his usual standards so far. Against the Screaming Eagles, he was 0 for 6 from the field and ended with three points. He did assist on seven buckets, but he had four turnovers in 27 minutes. Weber says some of that is a lack of emphasis on practicing sets that can free him for scoring opportunities.

"Some of it's my fault. I've got to help him with some offense."

However, Southern Indiana coach Rodney Watson, a former assistant under Weber at Southern Illinois, had a simpler explanation. He put diminutive Kevin Gant on him.

"Kevin Gant is truly one of the finest point guards in the country. He brings it every day in practice, he did it every game last year. That guy moves his feet defensively. It's like a videotape. I can't say enough how talented he is and how tough he is. He not only holds one of the best point guards in the country to no field goals, he comes down and runs our team."

Tisdale said McCamey just had an off night. Weber saw improvement from his star second half.

"I thought the little guy really took Demetri out of the game the first half. To Demetri's credit, at least he came back and fought it. I'm not saying he played perfect, but he did fight it."

Mike Davis had a double-double with 11 points and 14 rebounds including six offensive boards. Weber thought he should have had at least five more boards. D.J. Richardson added 10 points including two threes.

Tyler Griffey played well off the bench with 8 points and 7 rebounds in 14 minutes of action. Jereme Richmond added five points and five rebounds but forced three errant passes in the first half and was called for a technical for taunting.

As bad as it sounds from the Illini perspective, Watson had a different view. He bragged about the talent, quickness, size and strength of the Illinois team. And he was impressed with the intensity of their effort.

"When you watch the game from the stands, up high or on film, you see a different tempo. I thought Illinois played very hard. I know we played really hard, and we have pretty fair athletes. I was really impressed with their energy level and how they can keep coming at you in waves. It's November 2nd, execution is gonna come. The team we played made us fight for every pass and stretched us out.

"Illinois has the ability to get a shut out and then get an extremely quick outlet and put heat on the defense. They kept the heat on us by beating us down the floor. That's very exhausting.

"That team is scary good. And yet they have to continue to work on execution. I thought their energy level was better than a week ago. But the game was different. We played with a different energy level.

"The question in their mind probably is, will Illinois reach a level and stay at that level? The execution will come; guys will fill into their roles. This is a good team. They just need time to work and gain consistency. If Illinois plays every day like they did tonight, they're gonna be really good."

That may be true, but it won't prevent Weber and his staff from having a few sleepless nights.

"The message after is, it's about our team, not about individuals," Weber reminds. "It's about being coachable. It's still a long ways off. If they're not humbled, then we're gonna be in trouble. These were good experiences for us, and hopefully we can benefit from them in the long run."

The Illini begin the nonconference portion of their schedule with games next Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. After a day off tomorrow, they have four days to right the ship according to Weber.

"There's a long way to go. At this point in the season, it's not going as we hoped it would. We have to come back to practice and see if we can make some strides going into the Coaches vs. Cancer next Monday."

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