Illinois faces another warm-up for the Big 10 season in Northern Colorado. The 4-3 Bears are not expected to provide a tough test, especially if the Illini learned from the challenges presented by Oakland Wednesday.
Northern Colorado has a first year coach in B.J. Hill. Illinois coach Bruce Weber is more familiar with his predecessor Tad Boyle.
"It's a team that last year had a great season," Weber relates. "Coach Boyle was a guy we got to know when we were in the Missouri Valley. He was an assistant at Wichita State.
"He was from Colorado and energized the program at Northern Colorado and had a great season. They really put a lot of time and effort into defense. Now he ends up getting the Colorado job, and one of the assistants (B.J. Hill) becomes the head coach."
The Bears are shooting an impressive .426 from the three point line. Senior Chris Kaba (6'-8", 190) is hitting a lofty 61.9% of his 21 three point attempts. He is the third leading scorer on the team with a 10.9 average. Senior Neal Kingman (6'-7", 220), the second leading scorer at 12.7, and sophomore Elliott Lloyd (6'-2", 165) are hitting .444 and .483 from three respectively. Lloyd is scoring just under 10 points a game and is second in assists.
Northern Colorado's scoring leader is senior Devon Beitzel (6'-1", 180) at 16.7 points a game. He also leads the team in assists with 20 after seven games. Redshirt freshman Emmanuel Addo (6'-8", 220) is scoring just a shade under 10 a game.
Senior Taylor Montgomery (6'-7", 245) scores only 3.4 ppg but leads the team in rebounding, averaging 5.7 caroms each outing. Others who see time consistently include junior Mike Proctor (6'-8", 225) and freshman Paul Garnica (6'-0", 160).
Weber says this is an experienced crew.
"They have a lot of redshirts. Six or seven guys either transferred or redshirted, so you have some older guys. They're a skilled group. They have some versatile guys, and they do a lot of ball screening.
"Looking at the scores, they had a difficult Vegas tournament, they played at Arizona and Santa Clara and then came back home to play Valparaiso. They're impressive win was over Wyoming at home earlier this season."
The Illini are heavy favorites, and the game's inclusion at this time is calculated to not interfere with final exam preparations. Still, Illini players are distracted by thoughts other than basketball.
"It's not a smooth week. You always hope to get better in practice. The worst is the first couple days of finals (beginning Friday) because they have a lot of presentations and projects. I think once you settle in next week, by Monday or Tuesday most of the guys will be done. So hopefully we can get ready for UIC."
Distractions played a part in the Illini's sluggish start against Oakland Wednesday. Weber was not happy with the effort and insisted on better focus in practice the next day, especially on rebounding.
"They came back and practiced Thursday. We did a lot of rebounding drills. I really challenged them and almost threatened them they would come in early in the morning for practice Friday if they didn't put out a good effort. I thought it was a good intense practice."
The Illini are benefitting from extra practice on the defensive end, but more can be accomplished according to Weber.
"Some of the stuff we emphasized early, especially the defensive effort, we're light years ahead of a year ago. Are we still perfect? No, our inside presence defense has to get better. The first thing on other teams' scouting reports is they can attack us on the inside and on the glass. Those are two things we definitely have to continue to emphasize.
"When we play good defense, we get transition. With Demetri (McCamey) as a motor and pushing it, we've got guys that can run. I think Mike Davis is running, and we have enough other guys that can get down the court.
"Defense is pride and fundamentals and then preparation. We did the drills last year, but I don't think they had any pride in it. We tweaked some things this year. We're doing some different things on ball screens, stuff like that.
"But I think the biggest thing is they realize it's a difference-maker. They want to be successful, and I and the coaches have hammered it into them. They have a much better pride in their defense."
Weber is trying to incorporate freshmen and sophomores into his rotation, and defense is still a work in progress for them.
"Some of our young guys are still learning. They have some instincts now, but that's why our defense has to keep getting better. It could mean the difference in whether you win games and win a Big 10 Championship."
The Illini have lofty goals, but they are becoming aware of the great teams that stand in their way of a conference title. For instance, Ohio State has a freshman big man who is making a major contribution despite a senior-dominated team.
"It's easy to enourage our guys they need to get better," Weber says. "You watch Ohio State. Jared Sullinger gets 40, that's pretty impressive. And you know what (David) Lighty and (Jon) Diebler and (William) Buford are all about. The guys are watching, they realize it.
"We all knew about Purdue, Ohio State and Michigan State, but I'm not sure the average fan realizes how good Minnesota is gonna be, how good Wisconsin is gonna be, how good Northwestern is gonna be. There's a lot of good teams, great depth. We're gonna have to keep getting better as we go through it. It comes down to whether you can close games and make plays."
Freshman Jereme Richmond continues to get quality minutes. Weber says he is beginning to assert himself as he catches up to the college game but needs to concentrate on every situation that presents itself.
"Everything is a lot harder than he anticipated, so just being accountable on every possession, playing every possession, playing defense. Knowing what you are doing on offense, and also knowing what the other team is doing on defense.
"Slowly but surely he's getting better. Scoring has been hard, just like all freshmen. You make that long trip to Gonzaga right before exams. Some guys struggle with that while other guys are able to avoid distractions. He can do so many things. He can score inside, he's a good offensive rebounder."
Offensively, the Illini haven't spent a great deal of time on half-court offense, but Weber guarantees that will be needed as the season goes along.
"I'm hoping over this next week we can put some time into half-court offense and start making some progress. When you get in the League, you don't get as much transition. Now you have to score in the half-court, especially on the road in gut-check times of games. Those are things we've got to continue to work at and get better at."
Ideally, the Illini will be able to dispose of the Bears while completing exams successfully and preparing for tougher future opponents.
"Hopefully it's a game we'll come out ready to play and try to make some improvement."