Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber took a lot of positives from his team's 10 day, five game trip to Italy.
"It was a sensational trip. I've been fortunate to go on 8 or 9 of these trips in my career, and this was as good or better than any of them I've been on. I appreciate the department and the university allowing us to go. I know the kids appreciated it, and I hope they really realize what a special opportunity (it was).
Building team chemistry was a big goal, and it appears the Illini came together well on the trip.
"Our goals on a trip like this, team bonding is so important. They were together 24/7. Ten days, and we rotated roommates. We had older guys with new guys, and we switched them at the different hotels. So they had a chance to get to know each other in different situations.
"Beyond that, they see the coaches in a different light. We're out touring with them in the Vatican, in the Coliseum, going to dinner, whatever it might be. It's a great opportunity, especially for the young guys, to see you in a different light. I think that was a real positive thing."
The Illini are a young team, an inexperienced team. The players had to face adversity and respond. Weber was pleased with the effort throughout the trip.
"It's a great trip, but it's very difficult. One, going over and switching your body clock is difficult. We kept them awake, we did a lot of tours as a group, a lot of bus travel, and then tried to play the games. That's where you get the mental toughness, the physical toughness from the trip.
"The first five days were one game and a lot of enjoyment in Rome and Florence. The last stretch was really difficult. A lot of bus travel, late nights, hot gyms, some very competitive, testy games. It all added up to a benefit that, when you get to February and have four of five on the road, you hope this experience will help prepare you for that."
Winning the final game on the schedule was especially tough. Everything was going against them, but somehow they found a way to win. They will remember that experience the next time they're involved in a close game.
"Especially with the young guys, we got a chance to see them in difficult situations and how they would deal with it. We learned a lot about our players. The basketball tour group we dealt with did not want us to play four games in a row at the end. But we have so many guys, and I wanted them all to get minutes, we kind of forced it through.
"The last night, we had already bussed 6-7 hours the day before and had to take another one, we went on a boat trip on Lake Como, which was unbelievable. When you added it all up, it was a very tiring day.
"When we were 15 minutes out of Lake Como, I turned around and there were only three people on the bus awake: me, the bus driver and the tour guide. So you knew we were gonna be in trouble. But then to get to the game and play.
"That game, I challenged the older guys, 'What are you guys about? Do you want to be the leaders? Do you want to be the go-to guys? Here's your chance.'
"We had a game we shouldn't win. Everything was going against us. Some of the worst officiating in history. You think going on the road's bad in the Big 10, they made up rules. You have to deal with it. With all the frustration, tired legs, tired minds, we sucked it up and found a way to win."
The trip gave Weber and his staff a chance to experiment with various styles and player groupings. With so many new players, it is important to find out how each can contribute this year. The Illini used full court pressure and mass substitutions successfully.
"All those things you learn about the guys. We were demanding of them, made them play hard the whole time. It gave us a chance to learn about these guys and for them to learn about us and what we expect of them.
"We had a chance to experiment a little bit with the system, implement some things. We picked up full court pressure, we turned them over. That was one of the best positives of the trip. And we played some older, experienced guys. I hope if we can play that style, it will wear some people out.
"We had all five players up all the time. Some teams had their five man bring it up just to ease the pressure of it. It helped having a 24 second shot clock because you can disrupt them and not let them get into their stuff."
There were a number of other positives from the games.
"A positive thing was we created a lot of turnovers, which we haven't done as much of. We pushed the basketball at every opportunity. I don't think we walked it up more than once out of every 10 possessions, if we had a dead ball or something. We were able to run and do some things right out of transition.
"We had a chance to experiment with guys in different groups, different units. I think that was positive. We rotated, started different people every game. I kept trying different combinations. I think that was good for us.
"They played hard the whole time, they competed. The MATTO was over 40 every game and in the 50's a couple games. That was really positive. As a staff, we didn't really give them a choice. If they weren't playing hard, we pulled them out.
"We shot the ball better than I expected, to be honest. You had a different ball, a longer three point line, hot gyms, tired legs, the whole trip. I thought we really got into a rhythm.
"New Zealand and West Virginia into the next game, I thought we really shot it. We had 6 guys over 39% from three. And two of the guys that weren't there were D.J. (Richardson) and Tyler (Griffey), who you hope are gonna be your better shooters. That was positive.
"Offensive rebounding was something we really emphasized, and we did a great job on the boards. Tyler, Nnanna (Egwu), Myke Henry, you have some guys who have that knack of getting boards.
"And then overall I thought we shared the ball pretty well. I think six guys over ten assists on the trip. If we'd have finished some layups off transition, we probably would have had a few more."
Weber was also pleased with the maturation of upperclassmen Griffey and Joe Bertrand. For the Illini to be good this year, they need their most experienced players confident and contributing.
"I thought it was a great confidence-builder for Tyler and for Joe, two guys who kind of got lost in the shuffle last season. Both of them did some pretty good things. As for the other guys, Brandon (Paul) had to become one of the main guys. And then you got Sammy (Maniscalco) all that experience."
Weber even experimented with zone on the trip. Some fans have demanded a zone offense, at least at times. Weber was eager to share the results of his zone.
"For the fans, we even played zone once when we were up 75 points. We played one whole quarter of zone, so they should be happy we experimented with that. Ironically, we gave up the most points of any quarter in that game. But it was good.
"It's something we talked about with Meyers (Leonard) and Nnanna. Can we play two big guys? It's tough to play them man-to-man, especially over there, with the three ball. They spread you out and shoot it. But maybe experiment with some size and have them play some zone."
Some college teams play weak foes on similar trips. Weber was grateful for the quality of the competition.
"Above all else, because of the competition of the games, we were very fortunate to have good games. We saw 4-5 teams whose tour wasn't very beneficial. We had one game we won by sixty, but we had two overtime games.
"We played New Zealand, we played West Virginia. And even the last game, to suck it up when everything was against us. It was good to learn how to win. I think it's important to make plays, especially when you lose all your main guys that made all the plays down the stretch of games. Other people had to pick it up and make the plays."
Illini fans respect West Virginia's basketball program, so winning that abbreviated scrimmage was also a confidence boost for the team.
"They were very young, just like us. They have all new guys, and we have a lot of new guys. It was a positive step for us, but it doesn't really mean anything to win in August. You've got to win in November, December, January and February. That's the most important thing.
"But it was very positive. We controlled the whole scrimmage, right from the get-go. It might have been 18-4, and they never got it close.
"I thought at that point, which was midway through the trip, we were in midseason form. We were moving the basketball, we were active, we made shots, we made threes. We really disrupted them. And it didn't matter, I still rotated groups. All 12 guys got to play in the 20 minutes."
Weber feels the Illini's best effort was against the New Zealand national team despite the one point loss in overtime.
"I think the best game was New Zealand. It's a national team that had been competing and practicing together. They're older guys, they were feisty. We had some little scuffles in the thing. They were old men; they didn't want to lose.
"Our guys stood up to the test and should have won the game. Meyers grabbed a rebound and let it slip out. The guy grabbed it and kind of threw one in over a contested hand, and it ended up beating us.
"Our older guys got us back in the game, got us to overtime. But they came out and got down 6 or 8. I put in 5 freshmen or newer guys, and they got us back where we should have won the game. That was a nice confidence-builder for everybody. That game I think was the most beneficial of all. A lot of positives from that game."
Of course, there were also things that must be improved.
"The negatives, we turned it over way too much. But if you saw the games, the interpretation of traveling is so different in FIBA. You have to put it on the floor before you can step.
"We actually teach a move where you step and then put it on the floor, so it was tough to adjust to that. So we probably could have cut 5 or 6 turnovers (a game). If we're gonna turn people over, we've got to take advantage and take care of the ball.
"And then on defense, Meyers has got to get 10-12 rebounds a game. He's got to make a decision that he's gonna dominate on the boards. Tyler's got to do a better job. Mike Shaw showed some signs of being pretty active. He was our second leading rebounder and also second on the play-hard (chart). I challenged him to find a niche, and that's something he could do."
Overall, Weber saw a lot to like with his players and how they came together as a team on the trip.
"I thought our players were great travelers. I think overall they enjoyed it and had a great attitude. They were receptive. On the fifth or sixth day, they were a little bored with the guide telling us things. But I'm sure they're gonna have great memories of the trip."
In part two, Weber discusses his players and how these experiences might help them during the upcoming season.