Fighting Illini Take Off On Italy Excursion

The Fighting Illini basketball team leaves today for a 10 day, 5 game tour of Italy. The Illini are taking advantage of an NCAA rule allowing teams to travel out of the country once every four years. Since they are now allowed to take entering freshmen, this trip is a great opportunity to blend 7 newcomers with the veterans prior to the start of the season.

Illinois leaves today on what it hopes will be an educational and productive trip to Italy.

"We're heading out August 10th. We're all meeting in Chicago and flying out. I've been told we now have a fifth game in Italy. It should be a great trip.

"I know we have the New Zealand national team. They're preparing for Olympic qualifications, so that'll be a great game. I was told one of the Italian teams is a real high-level team. The others will be good games."

The Illini have added a special trip to Aviano Air Base August 17th. It will allow a unique opportunity to scrimmage against the West Virginia Mountaineers, also touring Italy at the time.

"It's gonna be a great experience. We will do a clinic for the kids on the base, and we'll play their teams if they're there. They're flying missions and live combat off base. And then we'll play each other (WVU) for 20 minutes. Another lifetime experience that no one else has ever done."

The extra practices and games are a great opportunity for the Illini to develop chemistry with a team filled with underclassmen. The Illini took advantage of a similar opportunity in 2003 with great long-term results according to coach Bruce Weber.

"I still remember my first year here with Dee (Brown) and Deron (Williams), Luther (Head), James (Augustine) and Roger (Powell). We struggled in practice, and then we struggled on our European trip. We almost lost to Sweden. We won in overtime; I think Luther made a big shot.

"But then each game, they started to blend, started to understand each other and how to play together. Now we have the opportunity to go through that same learning process."

Weber has been allowed 10 summer practices to prepare for the trip. He has been introducing 7 newcomers to the complexities of motion offense and man-to-man defense. He realizes they do not yet have everything figured out.

"We're expecting mistakes. We're not yelling, but we're encouraging and teaching."

Simply learning terminology takes time, especially for someone like freshman center Ibrahima Djimde, who is still learning English.

"The biggest challenge is getting everybody on the same page. The different types of screens we use and all that. Ibby didn't understand what we meant by "transition." He knew about pushing the basketball, but the term was new to him. That's why I think the trip will be so valuable.

"Defensively, we're doing basics. The terms we use, the way we guard things, it's all a new experience for them. So we're starting from scratch. It's kind of like going to basketball camp 101 for a lot of it."

The Illini must also prepare for the differences between European and American basketball.

"It's a 24 second shot clock, so we're mostly (doing) transition. That's the one thing we're looking at ahead of time. We have some pretty good athletes, we have some pretty good depth. We have more people who can handle the ball. Last year, we had to depend so much on Demetri (McCamey)."

The Illini now have centers Meyers Leonard and Nnanna, both of whom like to run. Djimde has potential there as well. So there is a greater chance of gaining an advantage with a fast break offense.

"We'll try to push it. Meyers had a great showing with USA basketball. One of the things he did was run the court. Nnanna runs every time, and Ibby is learning if he runs, he's gonna get the ball.

"I think the big thing with pushing the basketball is giving it up, getting ahead and getting some easy baskets in transition. There's 3-4 actions we can use. We did a little more with press offense in case that's what you're gonna face over there."

This trip gives everyone a chance for playing time.

"I told them they're all gonna play. We're gonna rotate. We have four games for sure, and we're hoping for a fifth. We're hoping they'll all get 90-100 minutes. That's our goal on the trip. Obviously, the two walkons Kevin Berardini and Jean Selus will get limited ticks. At least they can have fun on the trip."

It will be a fun excursion; winning is less important than developing chemistry and getting a head start on the upcoming season. But there is plenty on the line for the players, who want to prove to Weber they deserve playing time in the fall.

"What they're doing on the trip, they're proving to us once we get to October 15th, that they should be considered to be in the mix."

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