Illinois coach Bruce Weber is concerned about the matchup with Western Michigan Saturday. The Broncos are only 1-2 on the young season, but the record can be deceiving.
"It's a team that gave Xavier a heck of a game. They could have easily won the game. They came home and didn't play very well against Loyola, although I think Loyola is 6-0. And then they went on the road and beat Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who beat Northern Iowa. It's not gonna be an easy game."
More than that, it will be on WMU's home court, the result of a football/basketball deal arranged between the two schools. Weber has made a point of reminding his players the importance of playing at an emotional peak.
"I circled it on the calendar a couple weeks ago. It's a big game, learning to win on the road. If you are a top 20 team, you've got to find a way to win. But at the same time you've got to know it's not easy. Hopefully they have the right mindset and aren't looking ahead.
"It's a huge game for them, to have a top 25 team come in. We've got to realize they're gonna play at an emotional high, and we have to match that.
"The gym holds 5000-6000 people, and it's a chance for their team to make a major mark. I was up here with a Purdue team that won the Big 10, and we lost up here. So you've got to play."
Flenard Whitfield (6'-7", 230) is the leading returnee for the Broncos. He is scoring at a 17 point a game clip while also averaging 6 rebounds. Junior point guard Demetrius Ward (6'-3", 212) makes them go. He is averaging 11 points, 6 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. He also has 7 steals on the season.
Sophomore Nate Hutcheson (6'-7", 210), freshman Matt Stainbrook (6'-9", 290) and junior Mike Douglas (6'-0", 195) also start. Hutchinson is averaging 8.3 points and 4.3 boards a game, Stainbrook scores at a 6.7 ppg clip while grabbing 3 rebounds an outing, and Douglas comes in with a 4.7 average on both scoring and rebounding while leading the team with 3.3 assists a game.
Two reserves are among the top five scorers for the Broncos. Senior Alex Wolf (6'-0", 198) averages 7.3 points a game and is one of their leading three point shooters. And Detroit Pershing freshman Juwan Howard Jr. (6'-6", 210), son of the NBA player with the same name, makes his presence felt by averaging 7 points, 4.3 caroms and 2.3 assists a game. Junior Muhammed Conteh (6'-7", 238) also sees action for WMU.
Weber is especially impressed with Whitfield and Ward.
"The Whitfield kid is a tough matchup. He was tough for us to stop last year. He's a face-up forward that has some strength. I believe he was a football player and was recruited pretty heavily in both football and basketball. He can get to the basket, he can face up and make shots.
"And then Demetrius Ward is a big-bodied point guard who can get to the paint. He's actually a good rebounder for a guard also. He's got that body that can get some things done in the lane. And then they have a mixture of other guys. Juwan Howard's son is on there as a freshman and has had a few good games."
D.J. Richardson says the game reminds him of last year's NIT opponent Stony Brook, a game played in its tiny Long Island gym.
"It's gonna be like Stony Brook last year. Big crowd has probably never seen a big team like this. They have more people than Stony Brook in their school. It's gonna be a big game for them and also for us."
Brandon Paul is looking forward to the challenge.
"It's gonna be a good test for us. Anything is capable of happening. It's a good team we're about to face, so we can't take them lightly or think it's gonna be an easy game for us. We've got to work for it.
"New York was a neutral situation, and this is a true away game. It will be a big test. Their fans are definitely gonna support them, and they're gonna come after us hard. We just have to match their intensity and play hard. I feel to win any away game gives you an advantage."
Mike Tisdale expects a tough game. He knows the Illini are playing a difficult schedule.
"Western Michigan is a feisty team. Playing at their gym is gonna be tough. We have to go up there with the right mindset and do what we did (against Yale).
"Road games are never easy. Our schedule doesn't get any easier. If you want to be the best, you have to beat the best. It's probably the toughest schedule we've played since I've been here."
Demetri McCamey knows the Illini are playing at a disadvantage with any road game.
"Western Michigan is gonna be tough. Last year we played them pretty good at home, but it's another atmosphere when you go on the road. We expect it to be loud. We've got to put a +10 for them on the board. They're gonna come in with a lot of energy and be prepared. We've got to come to play."
McCamey knows the Illini face many other outstanding teams on their home courts, so this game will be good to help the Illini test their abilities in a hostile environment. He believes defense holds the key.
"I think our defensive intensity at home is just tremendous. We try to protect our home court. We've got to carry that to the road and neutral sites. I think once we get that, we'll be a really dangerous team."