Toledo Rockets Next AH Foe For Illini

The Fighting Illini basketball team continues play in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic Wednesday night in the Assembly Hall against Toledo. Toledo struggled last year and has a new coach. There is minimal time to prepare, but the Illini are heavily favored. The home team wants to play 40 minutes of intense defense and not just the first half as it did Monday.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber doesn't know a lot about next foe Toledo, but he can anticipate based on the new coach Todd Kowalczyk's background.

"New coach Todd Kowalczyk was at Green Bay. He was an assistant to Tom Crean at Marquette. It's the Michigan State basketball family. It's gonna be good for us because we're gonna have to defend a lot of sets, a lot of ball screens, a lot of handoffs."

In their two exhibition games, the Rockets shot 57.9%, 50% from three against UM-Dearborn, and 54.9% and an amazing 61.5% from three against Siena Heights. Those stats have earned Weber's respect.

"They're shooting the ball unbelieveable in their two games. It doesn't matter who you're playing, if you can shoot the ball from three that well. They're executing their stuff.

"On the other end, they're probably not guarding. They've given up quite a few points in those two games also. The comparison might be Lewis; deliberate, run their system, very solid. It'll be a good game for us."

Toledo lost five of its top seven scorers from a 4-28 team, and yet it put six players in double figures in the first game and five in the second. Senior Justin Anyijong (6'-9", 205) was second last year in scoring with a 9.4 point average. He averaged 4.4 rebounds and was third in assists on the year. Malcolm Griffin, a 6'-4" sophomore from Chicago Hyde Park, was third in scoring with a 7.1 average and was second on the team in assists.

Center Delino Dear (6'-9", 205) and guards Reese Holliday (6'-4", 205) and Zach Leahy (6'-2", 185) joined Anyijong and Griffin in double figures in both exhibition games, and Hayden Humes (6'-8", 210) matched that feat in one game. All are freshmen. Anyijong, Leahy and junior Jay Shunnar (6'-1", 170) had the highest three point percentages in the exhibitions.

The Illini played excellent team defense the first half of the UC Irvine game Monday night, but they let up second half. Weber says working against Toledo's offense will prepare them for Michigan State later in the year.

"We have to come out like we did in the first half, with the same defensive intensity, and disrupt their sets. Use our athleticism. Our length is such a difference maker. Six different guys blocked shots. But you've got to be in the right spot, giving help and making those type of plays."

With minimal opportunity to study Toledo, the Illini are focusing primarily on improving themselves. Senior guard Demetri McCamey says the team must play a full game and not just one half.

"We've got to work on our second half now and play a 40 minute game. Against good teams you've got to play 40 minutes. That's what we're working on now."

Illini seniors have had an annoying habit of letting up when they have a good lead. Do they have the maturity and aggressiveness to keep the hammer down on teams and put them out of their misery for a change?

"With the leadership from me and the rest of the seniors, we've got to go in the huddle and not let us get nonchalant," McCamey reminds. "It's just getting that nonchalance out of your system and try to make a statement nationally that you're a team that must be reckoned with this year."

Brandon Paul shot UC Irvine out of its zone Monday night, hitting 6 of 8 three point shots. Weber says Paul has finally understood how he was dipping the ball before he shot it last year. After working on it all summer, he is a more consistent shooter now. Of course, Weber wants Paul to do much more than shoot threes.

"We've got to get him to where he gets to the basket, gets in the paint. He has a nice pull-up. He's a pretty good passer, he's pretty good on ball screens. At the point he is more deliberate than Demetri, but he does see things.

"Brandon had 12 last night on the play-hard chart. That's pretty good to have 12 on that. He was very active, and he did it in 20 minutes. That's what we've challenged him with, to do that.

"When he gets tired, he gets to a point where he doesn't push himself. The next step will be to continue through fatigue and push himself. He does it in practice. If he can do that, he can be a player who can do a lot of versatile things to help the team."

Paul understands.

"I can do a lot of other things besides shooting. If I'm having an off night, I know I have teammates who can pick me up. I'm not gonna be that hot every single night, so I have to go out there and help us win the game. I don't want to rely on the three. I know I was hot last night, but if I start missing shots next game, I want to work inside out."

Paul isn't concerned about whether he starts or comes off the bench.

"At this point it doesn't really matter. When I'm in the game I feel I can contribute. Coach doesn't want us to be all caught up in stuff like that."

The Illini watched game film and went over Toledo sets in Tuesday's practice, which was abbreviated to prevent tired legs Wednesday. Paul was asked whether the difficult turnaround will hurt the Illini against Toledo.

"We'll see. We're pretty well prepared. If we just stay focused, I think we'll do good."

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