Illinois coach Bruce Weber was rightfully pleased with the way his team responded to two major challenges on its schedule last week.
"It was obviously a good week for us last week. I think it really started with the Western Michigan game. We went on the road and probably played the first half as well as we can. And then the Carolina game, I didn't think we played great for the first half, a little bit caught up in the moment, the hype of the game. But in the second half we settled down.
"And the big challenge, how are you gonna respond to the long trip to Seattle? I thought they were very focused, especially defensively. We kind of grinded it out the first half and battled them. And then we got the barrage of threes second half."
Weber doesn't want his players forcing up long bombs in traffic. He wants shots to come as part of an offense that is looking constantly for the open man. After some inconsistency early in the season, the Illini shot over 50% from three last week.
"Early in the season I thought we shot too many threes, and then it settled down. In the Carolina game, we were 8 for 12, which is really efficient and great shooting. The threes we got in the Gonzaga game were pretty much rhythm shots."
The Illini did lose focus after building a large lead against Gonzaga. Weber wants his team to keep working on ways of maintaining the pressure on opponents.
"It was a little disappointing, once we got the 22 point lead, the body language changed a little bit. That's where we've got to make some improvement. When people can take away our ball screens, what are we gonna do? It's keeping movement."
Still, Weber is pleased with the progress to date, and he has extra practice time the next two weeks to add more detail to the effort.
"You've got to feel good about our guys and where we're at. Now you've got two home games and the game with UIC mixed in with exams and projects to finish for school. It's so important that we get better in practice. I hope the freshmen by Christmas start connecting and the light goes on. If they can take some steps, it's gonna make us even better."
Weber would like to build confidence in more of his bench as it may be needed down the road. The next three games give him a chance to do that.
"This is a big two weeks for Tyler Griffey and Crandall (Head), for their sake to come and practice and get some confidence and make us feel good about it so that maybe we can extend the bench, even in the big games."
The game with Oakland Wednesday is an obvious trap game for the Illinois basketball program. It would be easy to relax and assume victory, but the Grizzlies have a quality team that is accustomed to travel. Weber respects their coach.
"We played Oakland in '04-'05. Coach (Greg) Kampe has been there a long time. He's a good guy, good coach. They've had a nice run in that league."
A major challenge for the Illini in this game will be Oakland senior center Keith Benson (6'-11", 230). Benson leads the team with a 19 point scoring average, 12.3 rebounds and nearly four blocks a game. Benson played sparingly at Country Day High School in Detroit, showing how much change is possible for big men in college.
"They have a very good big man in Benson," Weber explains. "He's been mentioned as an NBA prospect. I think he put his name in last year. He can score around the paint, block shots. He can shoot a 17 footer, but he's better in the paint.
"They'll do some high-low things with (Will) Hudson and him. He's got a nice little turnaround. He really seals well. He uses his body, he's got a pretty good body. He's a solid free throw shooter and gets to the line a lot. He's just a very skilled guy."
Benson isn't their only weapon. Junior guard Reggie Hamilton (5'-11", 175) scores 16 points a game while leading the team with 38 assists and 13 steals. The senior Hudson (6'-9", 235) also is in double figures scoring at 13.6 ppg, and he averages 7 boards per outing.
Senior Larry Wright (6'-2", 165), freshman Travis Bader (6'-4", 180) and sophomore Ledrick Eackles (6'-2", 196) all average around 7-8 points a game. Wright is also a good assist man. Sophomore Drew Valentine (6'-5", 225) and junior Ilija Milutinovic (7'-0", 252) also contribute.
Weber is impressed with Hamilton and Hudson.
"Hamilton is a very versatile young man who can get to the basket. He has some length and size, and some good quickness. He's shooting the ball well from the field. The Hudson kid is a strong kid. He crashes the glass. 28 offensive rebounds is pretty impressive."
Weber showed his players the first part of Oakland's game against Purdue to remind them the importance of coming prepared to battle.
"They were up 14-6 on Purdue. It was a four point game at half, and it really stayed pretty close for about 30 minutes before Purdue busted out a little down the stretch. They're a good basketball team, very smart. They have some size and athleticism, and now they're road tested. They're gonna come in here and have no fear factor."
It appears the Grizzlies will show the Illini a little bit of everything.
"They're a funny team. Sometimes they're go, sometimes they're very much half-court. They use penetration, dribble-weave, put you in binds with smaller people, and then they've got the big guy roaming inside. So we've got another challenge, for our bigs and also to see if we can guard a smaller team."
Weber knows the Illini must match Oakland's intensity.
"We know they're competitive, they've been in the NCAA Tournament. Are we gonna be focused, are we gonna come with energy? If we just guard in Assembly Hall, it's gonna help us even if we don't make shots. Against Yale, I don't think we were perfectly in sync offensively, but we guarded them. Then finally we started making some shots and broke it open. You've got to find different ways to win."
This Illinois team has avoided the cyclic ups and downs that plagued the 2009-10 team. Weber believes his Illini are more prepared to take a team like Oakland seriously this year.
"I think we learned a lot from last year. It's been a motivator from the spring to the summer to the fall getting ready. I think they understand you've got to focus every game. The seniors played pretty good basketball last week. The seniors have done a good job of keeping us focused."
The Illini would like to win their remaining nonconference games before entering Big 10 play. In that time, Weber says they still have plenty to improve upon.
"This is a key stretch. We have four nonconference games left, and we have to finish on a positive note. So if you then do well in the Big 10, you have a chance to be a high seed. Keep improving and driving to get better. I think that's the biggest thing."