Are Illini For Real? Test Tonight vs. Texas

The Fighting Illini basketball team has three easy victories to its credit, but now the assignment becomes much tougher. It faces off Thursday evening in Madison Square Garden against ranked Texas in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic Benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. The Illini have been playing well, but can they do it away from home against a powerful team?

Illinois coach Bruce Weber saw a lot to like last week.

"We had a good week last week, but you've got to keep it in perspective. The exhibitions weren't anything of beauty. To our guys' credit we did come back. We had great energy, we had great enthusiasm. We played hard, especially on the defensive end. That led to transition.

"I liked that we were more consistent and didn't let up on anybody; maybe a little bit in the first game, but we learned from that and continued it the next two games. We moved the basketball well and got it to the open man. We passed the ball much better than we did a year ago."

Weber liked how well his seniors played. Mike Davis ran the floor and fought for offensive rebounds. Mike Tisdale did a good job defending the large Southern Illinois postman. Demetri McCamey pushed the basketball and played more defense than anytime in the last three years. There was improvement from others as well.

Weber will soon learn whether that improvement can be sustained.

"Now it changes. Can we play with the same intensity away from home against a better quality team. Can you have that energy, your defensive intensity without your home crowd against better players? Do your kids keep their heads on? We're gonna learn a lot about ourselves on Thursday and Friday."

Texas has plenty of talent even though it lost several talented players to graduation and early departure for the NBA. Senior Gary Johnson (6'-6", 238) is a man on the inside. He is averaging 16 points and 8 rebounds a game so far this season. Senior Matt Hill (6'-10", 245) starts but is quickly replaced by talented frosh Tristan Thompson (6'-8", 225), who is averaging 14.5 points and 7 boards.

The scoring leader so far is sophomore wing Jordan Hamilton (6'-7", 220). He is burning the nets to the tune of 22.5 ppg and is also pulling down 7 rebounds per outing. Senior point guard Jai Lucas (5'-10", 160) is scoring 7 points a game and dishing out 2.5 assists per game.

Freshman Cory Joseph (6'-3", 185) is a potentially great outside shooter who is averaging 3.5 assists a game. He and Thompson were teammates of Illini D.J. Richardson at Findlay Prep. Joseph, JC transfer Alexis Wangmene (6'-7", 240), sophomore J'Covan Brown (6'-1", 195) and senior Dogus Balbay (6'-1", 175) are all averaging around 6 points a game.

Weber has great respect for the Longhorns.

"It's a talented team. They've got some good athletes, they have quickness. They have a mixture of scoring. Hamilton can really score. He's maybe a little bigger than Brandon (Paul), but like Brandon last year wanted to shoot a lot of threes and didn't get to the basket. This year he's still shooting some threes but also getting to the basket and using his athleticism.

"Johnson is in a way like Mike Davis. Maybe a little stronger and plays a little stronger, but he runs the court, gets to the glass. And then Thompson's the talented freshman coming off the bench and gives them some inside presence.

"Lucas is quick, Joseph was considered one of the top guards in the country who can play a little point, can play a little two. And the kid from Turkey Balbay has got some real toughness. I love how he plays.

"They have a variety of people who can do things with the ball and really push transition. Defending transition will be a big key. That means we've got to take care of the ball and take good shots."

What do the individual matchups look like?

"D.J. (Richardson) is our defensive stopper, and we'll have to use Brandon major minutes to guard Hamilton. Hopefully between those two and then Billy (Bill Cole) using good fundamentals and giving us a little size, we'll have some people that can shut down some people.

"I've talked about the seniors playing good defense this year, their best defense of their careers. I think they've made some strides with that. It's another big matchup for the bigs with Thompson, and then Gary Johnson is an energy guy and Mike (Davis) is gonna have to match that. Thompson has a little bigger body."

The true test for this Illini team begins Thursday evening and continues Friday. If the Illini defeat Texas and the winner of the Pittsburgh/Maryland matchup, they will create a lot of excitement for them around the country. Win or lose, everyone figures to benefit.

"It's a challenging schedule. But if we hope to be as good as we anticipate, it's good for us. It's a good way to learn."

Weber hopes he sees the team that showed up against three foes at the Assembly Hall last week.

"I like what we were last week. I hope that continues. It was my vision of them to play with great energy, to keep coming after them, to rotate guys and keep our guys with fresh legs so they can play hard and play both ends of the court.

"But can we do it away from home and in back-to-back nights? If we can continue to out-tough people, out-play them with physicality it's gonna help us."

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