Illinois coach Bruce Weber learned a lot about his team in Madison Square Garden while playing Texas and Maryland. He summarizes those games.
"We didn't play great. We could have won the Texas game in regulation, although they could probably say the same thing. But we were right there with them. Texas is a stronger team than anticipated. Texas took Pittsburgh down to the wire. All the games were highly competitive. I think you got a piece of what it would be like in an NCAA game. It was a great experience.
"I was more pleased with the offense on Friday night. We had better ball movements, but part of that maybe is the defense too. Texas had a lot of athletes, quickness and length. Their pressure made us dribble too much.
"Defensively, I thought Texas put us on our heels. They beat us with their quickness early, and I think our guys got a little bit tentative. We weren't aggressive enough; we didn't take things away, didn't have good enough ball pressure.
"And then the Maryland game, we had some good stretches of defense but never seemed able to put them away. But we knew they were the kind of team that would keep coming back.
"Now we have a little bit of feel of what we are, but we have to have the motivation to continue to get better. That'll be a key to having a very successful season."
Illini senior Bill Cole was thoughtful in his appraisal of the two games.
"I thought we really needed to share the ball better in the Texas game. We didn't have many assists in the Texas game, even with an overtime. We lost, and Coach reminded us that's what happens when we don't share the ball. We were so good first three games at home. I thought we shot it too quickly in the Texas game, and it hurt us.
"I don't think we played very good against Texas, and we still took them to overtime. So I think that's a positive we can take from that game. I honestly don't think we played that good against Maryland either, and we beat them.
"It shows what kind of team we have, one that can still get wins when we don't play great. But I'm still looking for us to come together even more and take it to a top level against teams like that."
Senior Mike Davis was specific about the mood of the team following the Texas loss.
"We're kind of mad we lost. We should have won the game, but we can't dwell on it. Hopefully we'll see them again in the Tournament. We've just got to take care of business now."
Freshman Meyers Leonard agrees but saw a silver lining to the trip.
"I wouldn't say we're 100% satisfied, but if we had lost to Maryland that would be an absolute sour note. Coming back off a win is good. I think we should have beaten Texas."
Now comes Yale, upset victors at Boston College. Weber expects an inspired game from them.
"Yale is a team that is already road-tested. They beat Boston College the other night and took Providence to a close game. We anticipate a team that's very well schooled. They run a lot of sets and are a pretty good three-point shooting team. They have one guy at 52% and another one in the 40's. It's a team you cannot take lightly.
Austin Morgan (5'-11', 185) is the Bulldogs's leading scorer at 18 a game. He is shooting 52.6% from three. Porter Braswell (6'-1", 195) is also excellent from three point land and is averaging 13.0 points per game. Greg Mangano (6'-10", 240) scores 13 a game and is their leading rebounder with 23 in 3 games.
Reggie Wilhite (6'-4", 194) is scoring at a 10 ppg clip while leading in assists and also helping out with rebounds. Jeremiah Kreisberg (6'-9", 235) is scoring only 4 points a game, but he has 14 boards on the young season. Rhett Anderson (6'-8", 230) starts but is providing minimal scoring help. Morgan is a sophomore and Kreisberg a freshman. The others are all juniors and seniors.
Cole says the Illini are aware of Yale's potential.
"We know how good they are. We're not sleeping on them at all. We know Boston College is ACC and has been a great team in the past. To have Yale go in there and knock them off sends a big message to us. We've got to be ready and strapped in. They shoot the ball extremely well."
Illinois has minimal chance to get ready for the Bulldogs. They stayed in New York Saturday and saw Ground Zero, the Statue of Liberty, Rockefeller Center and spent time shopping in Times Square before taking a night flight back to Champaign. Weber said they competed well in Sunday's practice despite being groggy from the late-night games and travel.
Perhaps Weber's biggest concern is a lack of aggressiveness among front line players. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis have always suffered from a lack of strength due to slender bodies. They have gained strength in the off season, but they still need to learn assertiveness.
"Tisdale and Davis are stronger and have both gained weight," Weber reminds. "But they still struggle with some physical play inside. I thought Mike Tisdale reacted better Friday night, but he just gets in foul trouble. So many ticky-tack fouls. Every guy battling in the post gets fouls, but he gets the little one-handed touches. He's got to stay away from those to stay in the game.
"I thought Mike Davis the first half against Maryland didn't have the right mindset. I thought second half he was more aggressive and was involved. I'm not sure he got a whole lot done, but he became more aggressive. With our foul trouble, we were fortunate some other guys came in and gave us some minutes.
"Some people just don't like physical play. But if they're gonna have success, they have to deal with big bodies. I think Mike Tisdale really wants to do it, but it's not something he's done for 20 years of his life. He's been more of a finesse guy. He hasn't had the body, so he's got to learn. He needs a better base.
"The same is true of Mike Davis. If he would just stay low. When he stands up, now you can get knocked off your legs. You have to have a base and strength in your legs."
The Illini need offense from Tisdale and Davis. Besides keeping Tisdale out of foul trouble and Davis from getting discouraged by his lack of scoring output, the other Illini players need to feed them the ball in positions where they can be effective according to Weber.
"We're not patient enough to get them the ball. They're good shooters, so against good teams we're gonna have to learn to get better body movement, ball movement. That would allow us to get some open shots, and get some screening action for those guys."
Tisdale understands what he needs to do.
"We have to be more aggressive, be more physical. We just have to use the strength that we've gained and put it to good use. I could have been more aggressive. On offense I was floating a little bit. I could have posted up more. And when (Tristan) Thompson came into the post, I let him get easy baskets. Those are things we need to work on."
Tisdale has been troubled four years over officiating calls that go against him. He needs to accept and learn from them, but he must first figure out why he is getting them, especially the ticky-tack ones.
"I honestly can't understand it. They make a call and I can't argue with them; they're the refs. I'm just gonna keep playing and try my best. A lot of them are fouls, it's just I've got to adjust and try to limit those."
One Illini who can be aggressive in the post is freshman Meyers Leonard. Only problem is how much he needs to learn according to Weber.
"Meyers is the one who has that mentality, he's just got to figure it out how to play and what's going on. There's so much new for him."
It is a long way from small Robinson High School to the Big 10, especially for a center. Leonard says he will be fine eventually.
"I think I'm pretty capable of it (being aggressive). That's what they liked about me when I was recruited. I can come in and bang, be able to run the floor and use my athletic ability.
"The physicality you have to bring every possession, the energy and everything like that is different than high school. I think I'm adjusting well, but I've still got a lot of work to do.
"In high school I was able to relax back, sit in the lane and block shots. But now I've got to know their plays, I've got to know our plays, every different kind of scheme."
Weber also realizes he must spend more practice time working on offensive sets. The Illini prefer to run, but they must also be efficient when they play half court offense against teams that grind it out. He is beginning to emphasize that more as the season goes along.
The Yale game is followed with a road trip to Western Michigan Saturday. Weber says this week is important for the team's development.
"The big thing is, can we carry over the energy and intensity we have in the Assembly Hall to an away site? We'll have a chance to see this Saturday at Western Michigan, and then we go to Seattle for a neutral home site.
"Can we guard and take some things away from quality teams? Discipline, toughness and concentration are things we're really gonna have to focus on over the next stretch."
Senior Demetri McCamey says this week is more important than the Madison Square Garden games.
"These two games mean more than Maryland and Texas. I think everybody will be more focused and cut in because these are games you're supposed to win. Especially on your home court.
"And your first test on the road is even more important. Coach Weber said it was a +10 for them, with the fans, the crowd, the intensity that comes with an Illinois team that's ranked coming into their place. They're gonna be pumped up."