Illinois wants to get off to a good start in conference play by defeating Iowa in Iowa City Wednesday. However, their pre-game thoughts have been split between the challenges Iowa presents and the chinks in the armor exposed in losses to UIC and Missouri. Coach Bruce Weber explains the time off for Christmas came at an important time.
"They all got a chance to go home after the Missouri game. We actually had three full days, which was nice for everybody. We came back late (Sunday) afternoon and had a pretty hard practice. They were fine; they got a little tired at the end which is expected.
"Everyone needs time off. It gives you fresh legs and fresh minds. In our case, two tough losses, we needed to get away and relax. Then get ready to come back and get after it."
Neutral court losses to ranked Missouri and Texas squads were tolerable because the Illini played hard and had breakdowns at the end of the game. Everyone agrees the UIC loss was a complete meltdown no one expected. How is team morale?
"I think they came back with good energy. You're disappointed you didn't win, but we played hard. We competed, so I wasn't mad at them. Now we've got to figure out how to finish games. We've got to be more efficient when it counts.
"In our losses, it is the end of the game that stands out and glares at you. If we could take care of business a little more in that middle section, maybe we won't have quite the pressure at the end of the game."
Senior point guard Demetri McCamey wants the ball in his hands at the end. Opponents know this and try to limit him. In addition, McCamey plays so many minutes he tires near the end. Weber was asked whether other Illinois players defer to McCamey regardless or look for ways of becoming involved in late game strategy.
"We need Demetri to handle the ball; he's got to make good decisions. Sometimes it's a pass, sometimes it's a shot, sometimes it's just create space and move the ball. But at the same time, we need him at the end of the game.
"Two things have to happen. We have to get him in and out more, and he has to work at getting in a little better shape. If we demand all this of him and make plays at the end, we've got to help him, but also he's got to help himself.
"At the same time, I'm hoping we can find a few others who can make plays at the end. I think Brandon (Paul) has tried to; he hasn't been successful. D.J. (Richardson) can take some shots, but we've got to work to get him open for those.
"And then we've got to use our bigs. One thing we can do, our guards can create plays and then dish it to our bigs who can shoot the basketball. It's really important that we work harder to get them with penetration and dribble-drives to get them open for shots.
"Chester (Frazier) got really good at it, Trent Meacham got good at it, and that's what Tisdale and Davis relied on (two years ago). If we get those little 12 foot shots at the end, we feel like those guys can make those shots.
"The other part of that is, yes you've got to score, but you have to stop somebody too. Missouri made the plays defensively, which made it easier on them on the offensive end."
Weber is able to break the game down into a formula for success. Follow the formula and wins are likely.
"Can we figure out to always play with energy? Our defense has got to be a foundation for our group, something they take pride in. It gives you a chance to win on the road, especially in the Big 10.
"If we have those things all the time, we have to get better on offense. In our losses we have not shot the ball well; in our losses 37%, and in our wins we're almost 50%. 40% from three in the wins, 30% in the losses.
"We have to find ways to get better shots, to be a little more patient and then hopefully make some of them. We had good shots against Missouri, we just didn't put the ball in the hoop.
"I think we still have to get to the paint and the free throw line. There's been games where we've shot too many threes. Obviously when we make them, we look pretty good.
"D.J., when he's hot he's fine. When he's not, he's got to work harder to get the 15 footers and get to the basket. Same thing with Brandon Paul. We sometimes give in to shooting threes when we should be more patient and put the opponent on defense."
The Illini need a win against Iowa to stop their losing skid and get off to a fresh start for what will no doubt be a tremendously difficult Big 10 schedule. Of course, Iowa is starting fresh under a new coach and has enough enthusiasm to pull the upset despite limited personnel.
"The Iowa game is important to us because you know they're gonna have great enthusiasm and energy," Weber reminds. "They're on a 4 for 5 run and beat a good Northern Iowa team in that mix. Fran has given them a freshness, they're playing with great energy, they're playing hard. It's gonna be a challenge on Wednesday night."
Junior Matt Gatens (6'-5", 215) and sophomore Eric May (6'-5", 220) lead the Hawkeyes with averages of 11.7 and 11.2 points respectively. May also pulls down 4.3 rebounds and two steals a game. Junior college transfer Bryce Cartwright (6'-1", 180) leads the team with 53 assists while also scoring at a 10.3 point per game pace.
Jarryd Cole (6'-7", 250) scores only 6.6 points a game, but the senior leader is a rugged defender and pulls down 6.8 boards per contest. Freshman Melsahn Basabe (6'-7", 225) averages 8.5 points on 54.9% shooting accuracy. The starter also averages 6.3 rebounds.
Freshman Zach McCabe (6'-7", 225) is hitting nearly 40% of his threes, averaging 8.6 points and 4.8 boards in extensive action. Freshman Roy Devyn Marble (6'-5", 190), son of former Iowa star Roy Marble, averages 6 points a game. Others who see action include junior Andrew Brommer (6'-9", 235) and junior Devon Archie (6'-9", 225).
Weber says the Hawkeye attack has some similarities to that employed by former coach Todd Lickliter, with notable exceptions.
"They run a lot of motion. It's not identical to what Todd ran, but a lot of the same ball-screening, a lot of the same actions that Todd ran. I would say they try to fast break a little more. They play man, but they'll mix in a little bit of three-quarter press and a little bit of zone on timeouts and free throws.
"You can see their excitement right now. I don't think their record shows the type of excitement and energy those guys are playing with right now. They have not been blown out by anybody either. They've been in a lot of the games."
What is the key to victory for the Illini?
"You've got to guard them. We've got to limit their easy looks. It would sure help to shoot the ball well. I think if we can have an inside presence and finish the plays...We've got to limit their offensive looks and make sure we get some."
Senior Mike Davis has great respect for Iowa.
"Iowa's gonna be a close game; we're not gonna blow them out. You don't win any Big 10 games by blowouts. So you've got to go in with the right mindset. It would be good to start the new season off right with a 'W.' We've got to start a new winning streak."
Fellow senior Mike Tisdale has also learned what it takes to compete in the Big 10.
"Any team in the Big 10 is gonna compete and play hard. It's a totally different concept than the other games. You can't lay down any game. It's League play now, a new season. We've got to start it off right."
Sophomore Tyler Griffey has studied the Hawkeyes.
"They're a tough team. They've got a couple good players in Cole and Gatens. They're gonna be tough. Their motion offense, they set a lot of screens, a lot of pin-downs. Their guys are hard to guard, but we're working on that. It'll be a challenge at Iowa, but I think we're ready to go."
All Illinois players want to win, but the four seniors want it most of all. Davis speaks for all of them.
"Just play our hearts out, play with energy, enthusiasm and responsibility as seniors. We need to have the best Big 10 season of our careers. It's our last go-around. Guys want to go to the next level, so we have to win games."