The Illinois basketball team showcased its newcomers as it scrimmaged for 20 minutes in blistering hot Assembly Hall Saturday afternoon. There were some good plays, but the team was predictably rusty and not in peak condition. And, with a couple notable exceptions, the freshmen were nervous and played tight.
"It was fine, Illini coach Bruce Weber stated afterward. "It's just conditioning. Obviously it's hot, but when we go to Italy, we aren't sure gyms are gonna be air conditioned. We might have similar situations.
"There were some good things and bad things. It's just day by day, game by game, play by play, keep making improvement."
A crowd that filled most of B section saw excellent play from a couple unexpected sources. Crandall Head made three turnovers but excited the crowd with his overall play. He scored 11 points while grabbing four rebounds and handing out five assists. Weber praised him afterward.
"Crandall did well. He's got great energy, he just goes too fast at times. He had three turnovers. If we can cut that down a little bit with patience and fundamentals, he's got great potential. I'm not sure this year, but down the road I think he can play point guard for us...if he learns to play at different speeds."
Head was pleased with his game but quick to share the mantra Weber has instilled in him.
"I need to keep my ball handling tight, just take care of the ball. We want to pick up the tempo, pick up the energy level. We need it."
Redshirt sophomore Joseph Bertrand was also impressive, scoring 12 points and handing out three assists. His confidence level was up, and he played aggressively.
Freshman center Nnanna Egwu led all players with 16 points, and he added seven rebounds. He played with confidence and extreme energy throughout. He said afterward there was no reason for nervousness.
"I've been here 8 weeks, so I'm really comfortable right now. I needed to get over being nervous. Playing against each other for 8 weeks, competing with Meyers (Leonard) every day is a big advantage. It's good to play against Meyers; he gets you a lot better."
Weber praised Egwu.
"Nnanna plays so hard, every possession every play. That will rub off on some of the other people too."
The other freshman who played aggressively and with confidence was Ibrahima Djimde. The undersized center scored 6 points and grabbed 5 rebounds in limited play.
Mike Shaw, Mycheal Henry and Tracy Abrams all struggled. Shaw and Abrams had no points, and Henry was 0-6 from the field while adding two free throws. Abrams showed his potential as a point guard on one play where he used his quickness to penetrate deep into the paint and dish to a wide open D.J. Richardson in the corner.
Freshman Devin Langford didn't play. He said the deep thigh bruise he injured in practice will keep him from playing on the Italy trip. But he should be fine well before the regular season.
Leonard played only briefly before aggravating a knee injury. Weber believes it looked worse than it really is.
"I think it's a little bit more mental. He sprained his medial ligament last week. It was in a pickup game, it wasn't even in practice. I think he didn't feel right and got a little scared."
Senior transfer Sam Maniscalco totaled six points and two assists, but he is still tentative after recovering from ankle surgery according to Weber.
"He's fine. Slowly but surely he's coming around. It's mental, and it's getting strength in his ankle. He knows how to play, he's got some toughness. He overcomes his lack of athleticism with smartness and toughness. I think he'll be a great leader for us."
Leadership is still an issue for Weber's Illini. He is hoping Maniscalco can help juniors Richardson and Paul with that task.
"I've got to challenge Brandon and D.J. to do it, but I'm hoping Sam along the way will slowly but surely become the leader with those guys. You need more than one if you have a special team. If one guy has a bad day, who's gonna pick it up?"
Speaking like a leader, Maniscalco believes the team is improving.
"I think we're making progress. It's the first week of August, and we've got a long way to go. But that's what's expected, especially when you have 6 or 7 newcomers on the team. Just getting a feel for things out here, getting a feel for the atmosphere, the coaching staff and each other."
It was obvious Weber wants to force the action more this year. There was some full court pressure and half court traps. He feels he can develop enough depth to make it work, especially with the way upperclassmen reserves Head, Bertrand and Tyler Griffey (6 points, 8 rebounds) are playing.
"We want to play with great energy. I think we have more people we can use. If they contribute, like Joe Bertrand, Crandall and those guys, then you're gonna feel confident. Now you feel you can push up a little bit on defense, pressure and push the basketball. Have a little more depth."
The Illini leave Tuesday for a ten day tour of Italy. They now get three days to rest tired legs and heal bumps and bruises before embarking. Their play was inconsistent, but the potential is there for a good season.
After they finished, the alumni played against one another. It was a chance for Illini Nation to relive fond memories, and the players rekindled their love affair with the University of Illinois. Playing with fellow alums from different eras helped them bond as part of the Illini family.
Luther Head couldn't make it, but the other four starters from the wonderful 2004-05 team were. Deron Williams, Dee Brown, James Augustine, Roger Powell and top reserve Jack Ingram played together briefly and showed why they were such a special team. All have played professionally, and Williams, Brown and Augustine are still active. Williams and Brown were the headliners, and they didn't disappoint.
Perhaps the most pleasant surprise was 1990 grad Kendall Gill. He is still in top shape, leading all scorers with 13 points. He also pulled down five rebounds. Williams filled the stat sheet, scoring 11, grabbing 8 boards and dishing out 6 assists in 20 minutes of action. Brown also scored 11, his arc shooting still in top form. He also had five assists.
Calvin Brock and Powell each had 8 points, while Brian Cook, Kiwane Garris, Brett Melton, bubba chisholm and Sean Harrington were each credited with 6 points. Cory Bradford, Mike Davis and Ingram each had five points.
Some of the alumni were in top shape, while some have seen better days. But they thoroughly enjoyed themselves and provided tons of excitement for their fans.
A number of recruiting prospects were on hand for the festivities as well. Commit Jalen James was there, as was Jahlil Okafor, Paul White, Larry Austin, Jordan Ash, Keita Bates-Diop, Michael Orris, Peyton Allen, Milik Yarbrough, Darius Austin and Malcolm Hill. They couldn't help but leave with memories to last a lifetime.