Illinois takes on it's biggest challenge of the young season as it hosts the Tar Heels of North Carolina. The fabled program, coached by Roy Williams, is identifiable by its powder blue uniforms and bench filled with high school superstars. No less than 7 McDonald's All-Americans dot its lineup.
"Obviously it's a big game for us," Illini coach Bruce Weber understates. "There's been a lot of hype, a lot of buzz. Carolina, one of the top basketball programs in the history of college basketball, comes to your place. It's great for the fans, but it's also a good game for us."
The Tar Heels boast athleticism and talent at every position, and depth is plentiful. Leading the team in scoring is junior center Tyler Zeller (7'-0", 250). He averages 15.5 points and 7.8 rebounds a game. Freshman superstar Harrison Barnes (6'-8", 210), labeled a pre-season All-American, has had his ups and downs but is scoring at an 11.8 clip. He is also pulling down 6.3 rebounds and is tied for third on the team in assists.
Sophomore John Henson (6'-10", 210) averages a double-double with 10.3 points and 11 rebounds a game. Sophomore Dexter Strickland (6'-3", 180) and junior Larry Drew II (6'-2", 180) are the starting guards. Strickland averages 7.7 and Drew averages 3.8 points a game. However, they receive plenty of assistance from freshman Kendall Marshall (6'-3", 186). He leads the team in assists with 26 in 6 games and scores 4.5 points a game.
Freshman Reggie Bullock (6'-7", 190) is fourth in scoring at 9.2 a game. Other frequent contributors include sophomore Leslie McDonald ((6'-4", 215), fifth year senior Justin Knox (6'-9", 240), and juniors D.J. Johnson (6'-4", 195) and Justin Watts ((6'-4", 210).
Weber says the front court poses the biggest obstacle for the Illini, along with UNC's fast break.
"Carolina is a team that has very good athleticism. They're still very good in transition like they've always been. Their inside presence, Zeller and Henson, are two very good players that have good mobility and are good around the paint.
"(Zeller) has good mobility. His number one strength is how he runs. He runs that court, it's unbelievable. We've practiced getting back on defense. He also can face up, he's got a nice touch. He's got a nice little hook shot. He's not a real physical guy. He does it with mobility. It's a tough matchup we have to deal with.
"Henson is very similar. Long legged, a Mike Davis kind of guy. He can go with both hands, real nice lefty hook. We have to make some progress on post defense. If you don't let them catch it, it's easier to stop them. Or make them catch it further out."
Barnes is a wild card in this contest. Labeled the nation's number one player in his high school class, he went 0-12 in one game but has put up good numbers in others. Weber knows him well.
"Harrison Barnes, it probably hurt him to get the re-season All-America because it put too much attention on him. But I've seen him throughout high school, we recruited him for awhile.
"He's going to be a very good player. He's had some of the normal struggles of a freshman, figuring out what's a good shot and what isn't. As the season goes on, he's definitely gonna be one of the top players in the ACC and the country.
"I think he's very similar to Jereme (Richmond). In high school he played out on the perimeter some, but he also was inside. Now you're figuring things out, going out on the court the entire game because they have big people. He'll go in and post up, but it's a transition.
"You can see by some of the plays he's making that's he's gonna be very good. He's got to learn the system and where he can get a shot in the system. It'll be a challenge for us.
"He's a matchup (problem) because he has some strength and can go inside, and yet right now he's playing kind of a three and you've got to guard him out on the court. It'll be a challenge for Billy (Cole), Brandon (Paul), and Jereme to guard him."
Richmond knows Barnes well, having played him in high school and at summer camps. He will get even better acquainted Tuesday night.
"He's just solid. He does a lot of things really good versus one thing great. That makes him a special player. I think he's the most fundamentally sound player I've played against."
If the Tar Heels have a problem, it is with their young guards. They are highly rated but still have some things to learn.
"They've got some young guys that are trying to figure it out. They can really push the basketball. I like Marshall; his numbers are very good. Slowly but surely he's gonna get a better feel for when to go and when not to. Same thing with Strickland. If they've had a little bit of a setback, it's because it's taken those guys awhile to see where they fit in and how they need to develop."
North Carolina's athleticism will test the Illini. Weber is concerned about it.
"They have some talent. We're gonna have to deal with their transition and deal with their pressure defense. They've been very aggressive on the defensive end. You've got to take care of the ball because they'll get in transition with it. And then deal with their system. It's always been very effective."
The Illini front court has struggled defending strong post players, but Weber feels the two teams have similarities.
"I think it's a good matchup. We're not going against a couple of guys that are 280-290 and use their bodies well. You've got to match their intensity, their athleticism, and try not to let them catch it in a sweet spot or rhythm spot where they are comfortable."
Weber knows the Illini crowd will be fired up, and so will his players. However, he doesn't want them to become hyper.
"We can't get emotionally drunk because of the game, the hype, and start jacking up questionable shots. I like emotion, but it's got to be smart emotion."
Illini players are eager to match skills with UNC. Mike Davis has admired them from afar.
"I've never played against UNC. I liked them and Duke when I was little. Going against UNC will be so surreal. Seeing them on our floor, seeing Coach (Roy) Williams on the sideline, it's gonna be fun."
Davis has been playing solid defense, and he sees this game as an excellent opportunity to put his improved defensive game to the test.
"It's my goal to stop Henson and Zeller and play good help-side defense. I think Zeller's the best player on the team. He's as good as anybody we've played against so far. Zeller always gets about three dunks a game on run-outs. We have to get back. It should be a good game, a fun, entertaining game."
McCamey looks forward to the challenge of counteracting UNC pressure and transition game.
"They're real quick and scrappy on defense. They're gonna try to take away things, try to deny things. At transition, they're probably one of the best in the country if not the best. They're gonna push it ahead, get it to the big guy and penetrate to get below the defense. We've got to get back in transition and stop them because that's where they score most of their points."
Mike Tisdale got to know Zeller last summer. Knowledge of his game might help the Illini center.
"I was Zeller's roommate in Vegas for about a week. He's a pretty cool kid. He's athletic and runs the floor well, but he likes to leak out some. Hopefully on the offensive glass we can hurt him."
Tisdale hopes for a home court advantage.
"Yeah, it should be exciting. The students are back. North Carolina tickets are sold out. It's a tough place to play when this place is loud. Hopefully that gives us a little bit of an advantage."
Cole loves playing in the Assembly Hall when it is shaking with electricity.
"There's a lot of excitement about the program, and people have been excited about this game since it's been announced. There's gonna be a lot of buzz in the air, so I'm excited to play."
D.J. Richardson knows the UNC guards will be tough, but he figures it is a two way street.
"They're kind of like our guards. We've just got to contain them and match their energy. They also have to match our energy because I know our team is gonna be ready to play as well.
"It's gonna be a very competitive game. Illini fans are excited to watch us play, and we're excited to get out there and play. It'll be a good matchup."
If the Illini have an advantage, Weber says it might be senior point guard McCamey.
"I hope with Demetri, we have an older guard. This will be a great opportunity for him to make a mark. It's a big national stage. It's a chance for our team to see where it's at, both as individuals and as a team."
McCamey says the team will be ready.
"Especially at home, we play at that magic level. That's one thing Coach Weber wanted us to do. Make people scared to come in here to the House of 'Paign. We're trying to win all our home games."