Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber is preparing his team for its ten day, five game trip to Italy in August. But with seven newcomers, a bigger goal is getting everyone acclimated and beginning the learning process prior to the season.
"This is a great opportunity for us to have all these new guys to go through the practices. I think the practices and just the camaraderie and going overseas will be the major things.
"The games are kind of icing on the cake. It's more valuable what we're teaching and learning. When we get to the fall with these guys, whether it's terminology or understanding how hard we want to go as part of our system, hopefully we have an advantage."
Weber believes there are benefits to spreading out the ten practices rather than doing them consecutively prior to the trip.
"It's gone well so far. This is our fourth practice. We had one in June. Then we have four here and go back out on the road recruiting. They'll continue to lift and hopefully open gym and conditioning. Then we'll come back for five days. We're finishing up on August 6th with the intrasquad game before the Alumni game."
Junior D.J. Richardson, along with Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey, are the old timers on the team despite just beginning their junior seasons. As one of the team's leaders, Richardson feels this upcoming Illini team has potential, and he believes he and Paul know what it takes to have a winning team.
"I think it relates back to high school. We've both been in the same position. We're upperclassmen now, and we came from winning programs.
"High school my senior year, we were undefeated. Brandon had a good strong senior year. We've got to do what we can to make our team win. Everyone's listening, and everyone's prepared to get on the ship."
While similar things were stated last year, Richardson is convinced the team is blending together well.
"The chemistry is way different. We're all on the same page and playing as a team. Nobody has a bad attitude. Everybody's working to try to get better."
He feels the Italy trip will prove beneficial for continuing the bonding experience.
"It will be great. The freshmen are coming along and doing pretty well. I think they've adjusted to college better than we did. There's a lot of things they need to know about college, and that's something me and Brandon had to do when we came in as freshmen."
Rumors abound the current team is listening to Illini coaches better than the recent past. Richardson agrees.
"That's a lot true. Everyone's been listening more. Tracy (Abrams) is becoming more of a college point guard. Mike Henry has been doing a good job of setting his man up and coming off ball screens, and slimming down. He's becoming a better college ball player by the day."
Senior point guard Sam Maniscalco is a veteran, but he's a newcomer to Illinois. Now that he is cleared to play after nearly a year recovering from ankle surgery, he is feeling his way back to his usual confidence level. He likes how his new team is coming along.
"I like it. I'm very impressed as far as work ethic goes. The guys have been working really hard and have a good attitude. I think the biggest thing over the summer and preparing for this trip, you've got to have the right attitude.
"Everybody's taking it one day at a time as far as getting better, and doing it together. That's the biggest thing. It's not one man on an island and trying to take care of things. It's us as a group trying to get better every day."
This is not Maniscalco's first time with a large newcomer group, so he understands the dynamic involved.
"My freshman year at Bradley, we had seven newcomers as well. This experience we're gonna go through in Italy will be such a help down the line in January and February.
"It's a great bonding experience. Seven new guys, four from Chicago, Devin (Langford) from Alabama and Ibby (Ibrahima Djimde), it's a unique opportunity for guys to get to know each other better. And also out on the floor, to build some chemistry. We're definitely trying to take advantage of it."
Center Meyers Leonard isn't a rookie, but he still has some growing up to do. He believes the Italy trip will help the entire team.
"I think it's really good for us to go overseas. We've got a lot of young guys, so it will be a good experience for them. I'm still young too. We'll learn from it and bring stuff back."
Leonard was asked his early impressions of Nnanna Egwu, his competition at center.
"Very hard worker, pretty strong and physical in the post. He's pretty raw, but he can rebound, and he can run pretty well. He plays hard and keeps a good attitude."
Who among the rookies has impressed him the most?
"I'd say Nnanna definitely, or Mike Shaw. (Egwu) is kind of like Ibby except he's more skilled. He's got a nice turnaround, which I didn't even know about. He can shoot the ball pretty well, and he never stops running. He's a pretty good defender also."
Egwu says Leonard has been a positive influence on him so far.
"He's been a huge help. He tells me stuff we're doing and corrects my mistakes. Meyers has been a big help in the transition from high school to here."
According to Leonard, they help each other. In fact, Egwu is talented enough to push Leonard to play his best to secure playing time.
"Absolutely. It's kind of like me coming in last year with Tiz (Mike Tisdale) being able to show me, and Mike Davis some. I think I'll be able to help him, and he'll be able to help me each day in practice."
Leonard agrees with Richardson regarding improved attitudes on the team this year. The freshmen have made a strong impression that way.
"They may be a little higher than I thought in my mind they'd be. The best thing about them is that they don't have any attitudes. I think last year we had a little bit of that, including myself."
Egwu realizes the benefits to the ten extra team practices over the summer.
"I think you can consider us lucky that we get these ten practices. Usually, I'm told practices don't start until October. With all the classes, they get so tired and it's such a shock when practice starts. We're lucky with these ten practices so we can get used to it, get acclimated and adjust to things."
Of course, he also admits his head is spinning from all the new terminology and complexity of college ball.
"Oh yeah. You go from high school to D-1 basketball, and you have lots of things to learn. Everyone is quicker, and in practices you go so quickly from one drill to another. But we're learning. We're still adjusting to things, but we're doing well."
Egwu likes how he has performed to date. He says his turnaround jumper has been part of his game for more than a year now. It is part of his developing arsenal of post moves.
"I think I've played well. I play hard, and I rebound and compete. I've been using a turnaround jump shot. That was my main killer move in high school, and a counter off of that.
"I'm also developing hook shots off of both shoulders, and getting to the basket off my moves. I'm using that and the turnaround jump shot from both left shoulder and right shoulder.
"You develop a variety of moves to keep the defense guessing. One thing Sammy told me is to be unpredictable. That's what I'm gonna try to do, make sure the defense doesn't know what I'm trying to do."
Djimde hasn't been on campus long. Egwu may know his game as well as anyone.
"He learns real quickly, and he's strong. Plus, on the defensive end he holds his own. He has a good hook shot on the offensive end. He's been very impressive. And he wants to learn, wants to get better. He works hard and gets better on his skills."
The newest version of the Fighting Illini basketball team is in its infancy. There is much to learn; the ten extra practices and Italy trip will help. If they develop the bonding and chemistry this summer, they have a better chance of winning big games next winter.