Illinois coach Bruce Weber was a hard-nosed defender when he played ball, and he wants his teams to play the same way. Pushing opponents out of their comfort zone and creating steals to initiate fast break baskets can be a winning combination if you have the personnel to do it.
His upcoming team is possibly his most athletic group, and he is eager to see if they can make his dreams come true. They had great success with that style in Italy, and he was able to rotate a large number of players to keep them fresh. That experience encourages him to use his bench more.
"Our depth is good, and we're gonna try to use that. We tried it this summer. I'm not sure I can go to 11 or 12, but we can go 9, 10 and maybe 11 and rotate guys and keep them fresh. It could be one of our strengths."
That style requires rotating personnel while always having scorers in the game. Juggling personnel groupings will be a complex task.
"I have talked to some coaches that have done it, and they say the toughest thing is to work the minutes out that the guys you want at the end of the game are fresh and ready to go. That'll be our biggest challenge as a staff."
Illini players appear adept at full court pressure, even the bigs. They will open their nonconference schedule with that look. The real question is, can they continue it when games get tougher during Big 10 Conference play?
"I've had other coaches talking to me since we got back from Italy, 'Do you think you can press in the Big 10?' Look at it, no one really does.' I said, 'We'll give it a shot.' I don't know if there's a cutoff date, but I think it could be our strength. We'll see if we can get it done."
Junior D.J. Richardson has been one of the team's best defenders since arriving on campus. But the team needs multiple defensive stoppers to make any kind of pressure defense work. Who else can have a defensive presence consistently?
"Tracy (Abrams) is gonna be a physical defender. Nnanna (Egwu) is aggressive. With his athleticism and length, Brandon (Paul) should be one of our better defenders. I hope it's gonna be a different defensive mindset where we can be a lot more aggressive and get after people."
Using a larger bench is a wonderful sentiment, but players must earn playing time by proving their value in games. In the past, Weber has shortened his bench as the seasons progressed, leaning on the few he trusted most. He will need to trust more players to continue his preferred style this season. He says the Italy trip gave him hope.
"It's a mindset. You've got to give me confidence as a coach to feel good with it. The good thing about Italy as a coaching staff, we were playing New Zealand, which was our toughest competition, and our older guys get us back in the game. It goes overtime, and all of a sudden they lay an egg.
"I just said, 'Heck with this.' There was nothing to lose; it's not like you have to advance in the NCAA Tournament. And then here comes Tracy, gets two steals. Nnanna makes a play. All the young guys. So that helped me feel better about it.
"The older guys still have to be our stability. The coaches are gonna have to help me. We have to play them and go through some mistakes. How do you get maturity and experience? You do some of the things on the court and hope the schedule is conducive to it early. And then when it gets a little tougher, you can feel good about them and leave them on the court."
Teams will slow the tempo and try to force Illinois to play a half-court game. As good as the Illini may be in transition, they may struggle when transition opportunities are reduced. They had no true go-to player last year, and the one closest to that description graduated. Weber thinks several players have potential to fill that role.
"The great part of Italy, we had close games. Guys had to make plays. I hope we can score better inside. One of our goals is to get some inside touches, get to the free throw line more than we did. I thought we were better shooters on the trip.
"We were a pretty good shooting team last year. When we made shots, we could beat anyone in the country. So now you lost those guys who shot well. But I was impressed by what we did from the three point range. I think we have a variety of weapons. But what it comes down to is, who can create and make a basket?
"I think Sammie (Maniscalco) can do it to create for others. Brandon is a guy that can get to the basket. He's one I hope will make shots. And then if we can get it inside, that's where a Meyers (Lenoard), a Nnanna can get into a position where they can get some easy goals at the end of games."
Most championship teams have superstars leading them. But Illinois appears to be a team without star power. The same was said of the Illini football team in preseason, but several younger athletes rose to the top and helped them reach the halfway point of their season undefeated. Will any Illini become surprises this year?
"That's one of the things I challenged our guys in the spring. If we're gonna be really successful, we have to have somebody come out of nowhere and become a star, become a name that everybody recognizes. Jordan Taylor and (Tim) Hardaway are good examples.
"I think there are a lot of guys that could be that guy on our team. We'll just have to see who rises to the top."
Weber uses a motion offense in the half-court. It can be complex for newcomers because they must consider all the variations possible. Thinking slows them down. With six new freshmen, Weber will have to bring them along a little at a time.
"As far as half-court stuff, we're gonna have to give them direction. I call it motion actions, motion sets. It's not a play per se, you give them some actions that you start our offense with. From there, you've got to read.
"With motion, it's probably Christmas before you're really clicking and people are feeling good about it. With this many new guys, it will take awhile.
"I'm gonna give them four or five motion actions to help us get into things. That, along with our defense and transition, I hope we're gonna be able to score some points early."
If Weber is facing job pressure, he doesn't show it. Tanned and relaxed, Weber sounds like he hasn't a care in the world. He appears to be re-energized by the chemistry and talent of his young team. He has high hopes for the season and sees possibilities in the Big 10 Conference race.
"For me, the excitement is we have a young group that's energetic, very competitive, seem to get along. It's also exciting that the League is young. Everyone in the League has question marks.
"Obviously, Ohio State has less than other people, but they still must fill (David) Leighty and (Jon) Diebler's footsteps. That's pretty big. That's a lot of experience to fill. Ohio State's got to be the pick, but after that there's a lot of cases that can be made.
"That's where we've got to match on and get going. It would surprise some people, but it wouldn't surprise me to be up in the top part of the pack."