Bruce Weber knows he will have a battle on his hands against good friend Chris Lowery and his Salukis. Lowery worked with Weber first in Carbondale and for a year at Illinois before taking the head coaching job at SIU.
"Now it gets a little tougher. The SIU team will come in with a great deal of energy, enthusiasm and excitement. Chris's teams always guard, they play hard, they're very physical."
Weber has mixed emotions about the game. On the one hand, he promised the two teams would play upon leaving SIU for Illinois. On the other, he doesn't want to compete against his friends and colleagues.
"I have a relationship with SIU and the friends I have there. And Chris, when you work together as a staff you become very close. You go through a lot of ups and downs, put in many hours and get to know each other. It's not a fun game for anybody."
Lowery usually converses with Weber regularly. For a week they are enemies, and he has missed their conversations.
"Coach is a guy I lean on regularly. We talk at length. We talk after every game, including the exhibitions. Now we can't, and it's weird. I now see what he and Matt (Painter, Purdue coach) go through."
The Salukis started off 11-2 last year but ended up a disappointing 15-15. Lowery lost three of his top five scorers from that team, but he feels his new squad fits his philosophy better.
"We're just trying to get our system back in place. As a coach, it was like rushing water. We couldn't stop it. In 8 point games or less, we were 4-10. We lost 9 by four or less.
"We're trying to re-instill a total commitment to our system. It's about doing what has made us successful here. That's being a terrific defensive team, being able to grind wins and have a strong competitive nature every time we step on the court."
In other words, like Weber tries to do at Illinois. Weber's players have noticed the similarities.
"The players say it's almost like playing yourself," Weber relates. "Both teams are a mirror image of each other, and we know each other so well."
The leading returner for Southern Illinois is senior power forward Carlton Fay. The 6'-8", 225 pounder from Putnam County was second on the team in scoring last year with a 12 point average. Bloomington senior Justin Bocot (6'-4", 170) was the fourth leading scorer, averaging 9.1 points a game. Both players are excellent three point shooters.
Sophomore center Gene Teague (6'-9", 290) takes up a great deal of space in the post and was the team's leading rebounder last year with 4.6 boards per game. He also averaged 6.1 points each contest. Weber is familiar with both Teague and Fay.
"They have two very strong big guys in Gene Teague and Carlton Fay. Not only do they have strength and size but also skill. They will definitely push our big guys.
"Coach (Jay) Price took a team on a tour this summer, and we got to know (Teague). He came through our campus on the way up and way back. He seems like a great kid. I know Chris and his staff have done a great job of getting his weight down where now he's a major factor.
"He's got a nice body, he's got a touch inside. I think their big thing is how to get him the ball. For us, once he gets the ball, how do we defend him. In the two exhibition games, once he gets it he's pretty effective. Obviously he gets a lot of layups and baskets around the hoop. But he also has a nice touch. So they've got a pretty good front line, especially for the Valley."
SIU started different guards in its two exhibition games. Against Indianapolis, Lowery opened with sophomore Kendal Brown-Surles (5'-10", 175) and seniors Jack Crowder (6'-4", 210) and John Freeman (6'-5", 190). Versus Quincy, he started juniors Mykel Cleveland (6'-1", 190) and Troy Long (6'-0", 165) plus Bocot.
Cleveland and Long are junior college transfers, as is Mamadou Seck (6'-7", 210). With these players, Lowery believes he will be able to return SIU to the style he prefers.
"They came from places where we had good players in the past. We knew those guys prepared kids the right way. They were guys we knew could play our system and be successful. On the defensive side, they're where we need them to be. We need our defense to be ahead of anything else in our program in order to get our culture back."
Lowery knows the Illini are a major challenge for his team.
"I think what they pose as challenges for anybody is their length and athleticism. The chance they have to be good is that they have good older guys and good younger guys. When you have a mix like that, you have a chance to have a great season."
Most people focus on Illinois's seniors and freshmen, but Lowery sees things from a different perspective.
"Everyone knows about Mike (Tisdale) and Mike (Davis), Demetri (McCamey) and Billy (Bill Cole). The sophomore class is getting no recognition, but they're very good."
Weber believes the sophomores and freshmen hold the key to a successful season because of what they add off the bench. They not only provide scoring punch but can help maintain defensive intensity throughout 40 minutes.
"They can be a difference-maker for us. They have talent, they're gonna give us depth. Tyler Griffey is one of the best big shooters in the country, and he's experienced now. You bring Meyers (Leonard) in, and with his physicality and athleticism, it's gonna be hard for other teams to deal with that.
"Brandon Paul coming off the bench, the way he's played, not only the threes but he's led us on the play-hard charts, he steals, he's rebounding, he's guarding. And there's Jereme Richmond. The list goes on and on.
"If those guys develop, we won't have much drop off. We'll be able to rest our older guys. It could be one of the keys for Demetri having a great year too. If we can rest him a little bit, that would help also."
The Illini play two huge games in New York next week. If they overlook SIU, they could be in trouble according to Davis.
"We can't look forward to New York or we might get beat. This is our biggest game so far, the best team we've played so far. They play good defense; we've got to be strong with the ball. It's like the Purdue defense, they play so hard.
"They're not gonna come down and jack the ball. They're gonna run motion offense, screen and move the ball around. We're gonna have to play defense for 35 seconds. We're gonna guard, and they're gonna guard us. It will be intense. It will be a good game. I want to beat them for Coach."
"There's a rivalry between these two teams. They're gonna play hard; they really have nothing to lose. We've got to stay focused. We can't come out and take them lightly. They've got good talent."
Leonard knows it will be a tough game, but he has confidence in his team.
"With Coach Weber having been coach at SIU, and also them being from Illinois, they'll come in here and play 110%. They want to beat us, but I think if we handle ourselves the right way and play hard, I think we can beat them."
Weber was pleased with the defensive intensity and overall play against Toledo, but SIU figures to be a much tougher foe. He is looking for continued growth prior to the big trip to New York next week.
"Now we have a chance to make strides with maturity and discipline, and our defense. This will be a nice little test for us on Saturday night."