Illinois Coach Bruce Weber talked with the media about his team's preseason exhibition showing. Ten and nine point wins over Lewis University and Southern Indiana exposed weaknesses in a team supposedly among the top 20 in the country. Weber's perspective was somewhere in the middle between great and terrible.
"Would I say we were popping champagne after the game Tuesday night? No. Did we watch film and analyze it, talk and figure it out? Yes. Are we in panic state, no. Are we disappointed, yes. Does that mean we can't improve? We can improve, we can get a lot better. But it might take a little bit of time. I wish it would be there easy, but it doesn't always happen.
"Obviously we didn't play well in the exhibitions. We have to have Demetri (McCamey) play better to be a Top 25 team. That definitely has to happen. We have to do a better job on the boards, we have to do a better job taking care of the basketball.
"It was an eye opener for the freshmen. How hard teams play. How well teams play, whether it is Division II or Division I. It isn't gonna come easy. They're talented, but now they've got to learn the game."
Weber would prefer to have his team give a peak effort every game of the season, but that is impossible. With teams as talented and deep as the Illini, perhaps it is better to learn lessons in the exhibitions so they won't occur later.
"Last year, SIU-E and maybe Presbyterian, the flow was so easy. Brandon (Paul) made a bunch of threes. We got into the Top 25 and maybe was a little bit of a disillusion what we were. And then all of a sudden we had some very disappointing losses after that because we weren't ready.
"So I think if I had my druthers, I'd rather have what happened in the exhibitions happen, and now we have their attention I hope. Listen, learn and figure out what we are as a team and then make some progress."
Weber pointed out several extenuating circumstances that contributed to the low margin of victories.
1. The early start with only two weeks of practice.
"No doubt that's part of it. But you have to understand it's a huge game for Lewis. They have plays, they have out of bounds stuff. I put a make believe out of bounds play in that we practiced two or three times. We don't have one set in. I'm trying to teach them how to play.
"The awakening is, the guys say, 'Maybe we need sets and need to prepare.' They (Lewis) ran a play I prepared years ago at SIU called 'Sidewinder.' They ran it three straight times and scored. And Meyers (Leonard) and Crandall (Head) still don't know what hit them. So now they know preparation is important."
2. A liberal substitution policy.
"I'm throwing five guys in there, and it's not pretty. We were with Coach (Matt) Painter at the Beef House event, and he was talking about one of his freshmen having six turnovers. In an exhibition game, you allow them to do that. In a regular game you probably can't.
"So adjusting, and throwing five guys in there at one time, it doesn't have much good flow to the game. That's why it was so sloppy and choppy."
3. Atypical pregame preparations.
"Another thing I did, I lifted weights the day before the game, and I've never done it before. I felt we needed that, because next week we're only gonna have one day of lifting. And when we go to New York we're only gonna have one day of lifting. I just felt it was important. So maybe it was an experiment there. We probably don't need to lift weights before games."
4. Creating a new team chemistry and getting everyone on the same page takes time.
"It's like everybody. There's only been two teams in my years of coaching where you basically have everybody back. Then you know what's gonna happen. They played together, they know each other. We have a lot of guys back, but we also have a lot of new guys. So you have that challenge to deal with."
5. Weber is changing offensive and defensive styles from last year.
"I'm trying to make them do some things we didn't do last year. Really try to guard and make it an emphasis. We put in a lot of time with that.
"I know we haven't put as much time in offensively. We could look better offensively if I would put in a couple plays. But we need to learn how to run and take care of the ball, screen and do some things with it. Whether you run a play or run motion, defensively we have to guard people and take some pride in it.
"I haven't allowed as many ball screens in practice. We depended on it so much last year, and when we got to the end, you get to games where they were good enough and quick enough they could take us out of it. Now we didn't have anything to do.
"The whole thing last year was, if you take Demetri out of the game and jam our ball screens, we struggled. So I'm trying not to do as much. Now we're gonna use them because that's the Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis pick-and-pops. Demetri is good with it creating. So we'll allow them to use it.
"But I'd like to see some movement, get some dribble penetration and kick, get to the basket. Our guards have got to get to the basket, get to the free throw line. That's so important.
"Our guys have to realize what everyone does well and then try to help each other get into those sweet spots where they can do things."
Rebounding was a big concern for Weber in the exhibitions. The Illini outrebounded both foes, but by small amounts when they should have dominated. Despite daily practice preparation, fundamentals weren't always followed.
"The offensive rebounds or lack of blocking out, that was one thing that bothered me to be honest. It was a problem last year. We've got to get our guards more involved. We've emphasized it just a couple weeks, but hopefully we can make some strides with that.
"You hold them to 34%, 25% from three, but then you turn it over too much and you give up too many offensive rebounds. It allows too many possessions for your opponent. It's a difference-maker in games. Tis (Tisdale) shot it well, but he didn't get rebounds. He can't get two rebounds for us. They were quicker and smaller, but you've got to do a better job with that."
The Illini work constantly on block-out drills in practice, but that doesn't always simulate game conditions.
"It's different in a game though. The other day, they were so quick they'd beat us on penetration. Then we would help, which was positive. Now it's a skip pass or a shot. Now you have to react and rotate and rebound. We can do all these block out drills, but now it's getting the game block outs, rotation rebounding.
"We've got to get the guards involved. If you watch the film, the two guards or three guards are taking off, and we haven't gotten the rebound yet. We need to stay there and make sure we get the ball before we take off."
Weber has emphasized defense and rebounding extensively in practices to date. He believes it will pay off eventually.
"I would say 65-70% of our practices are defense. I thought we made some strides, but we didn't finish it with block outs. We've put a lot of time in there. I think in the long haul, you set a foundation early. If you don't do that, it's hard to catch up later.
"Obviously, I've got to do some things offensively as we get into the games. But we've got to keep the mindset that defense is important.
"I think the football team is a great example of it. The foundation of their defense has given them a chance this season. Have they been perfect offensively? No, but they've made strides slowly and surely. They're even starting to look halfway decent offensively. So when you add them all together, they're having a pretty good season, and I think a lot better than people expected."
The Illini have the athleticism to get rebounds. Weber reminds that isn't enough.
"Defense is will and desire. Rebounding is will and desire. There's a technique, there's athleticism, but the thing that really makes someone a good rebounder is the desire to go get it. Realize it's important.
Weber would like his team to run and not just be a half court team. But it requires rebounding and good outlet passes. And it requires ball handling skills and enough court awareness to get the ball to the open man for an easy layup. He is determined to keep working on it.
"I'd like to try, but if we're gonna keep turning it over I'll have to shut the gas off. That's learning each other, when to go and when not to. It seemed like the other night we couldn't finish runs, we couldn't make the right decisions, we didn't make the open shot, didn't finish some tipins. You just never got a flow.
"I think it's okay. It keeps their attention, there's no doubt. We should be able to run better. The thing is, really good running teams have a lot of guys that can handle the basketball and pass it. The question is whether we have it.
"I think we have guys that can run; now can they run, pass and dribble all at the same time. That's what we're gonna have to figure out before it's too late."
The Illini have 11 players seeking playing time. All have skills to add to the whole, but they can't all play at the same time. The good thing is they will compete harder and learn quicker if they are motivated to increase their playing time. The bad thing would be if they are not up to the challenge and sulk on the bench. It is likely different players will help at different times.
"I don't know that I'll sub five at a time, but I still want to play those guys. They're gonna be part of it, they're a strength of our team. Now 11, I don't know. It's gonna be hard. That's gonna be an adjustment for guys.
"I've tried to talk to our guys about it. Just because you're here doesn't guarantee you minutes. You earn them every day in practice, you earn them in any opportunity you have. If you don't have them early, you've got to continue working and fight your way back into the mix."
McCamey had family problems that divided his emotions. And he had a thigh bruise that may have slowed him. But he was lethargic and disinterested most of both exhibitions. Since he is the established star of the team, his inability to bring his best undoubtedly had a negative effect on game results.
"I think this is good for him. He came to us after the game and said, 'Hey coach, I apologize. I've got to do better.' He realizes that, so I hope he can come a little better prepared and play like he did last year at the end of the year starting on Monday night.
"Obviously, I wish he would have played better. But I thought at least in the second half he didn't hesitate, he didn't run away from the ball, and he started doing some things with the ball more aggressively."
Despite all the problems, Weber pointed out the improved scoring against Southern Indiana.
"The positive is we scored 76 points and Demetri had three and you had a lot of turnovers. As sloppy as it was, we were still able to score that many points. Two years ago, we needed two games to get 76 points."
Yes, the Illini were not the championship team everyone wants and expects. But these were exhibition games. If they continue to have the same problems beginning with the UC Irvine game next Monday night, then more changes will be needed.