Illinois basketball players rotated between both Orange and Blue teams as they scrimmaged before Illini Nation in the Assembly Hall Sunday. Each of four quarters was competitive as the Illini continue to get after each other defensively.
Meyers Leonard led all scorers with 18 points, and he added 7 rebounds. Sam Maniscalco scored 17, including 5 of 8 three point shots, and he dished out five assists in a good all-around performance. Brandon Paul added 15 points, led the team in assists with 7 and added a couple steals. He played well except for 5 turnovers.
Other Illini leaders included Joe Bertrand and Myckeal Henry, who each scored 13 points. Bertrand continued where he left off this summer, using his length and athleticism to advantage. He leaped over teammates for 9 rebounds including 3 on the offensive end. D.J. Richardson scored 11 points, and Tracy Abrams added 10 and 3 assists. Nnanna Egwu registered 6 rebounds.
The Illini are a work in progress, but coach Bruce Weber was generally pleased with the effort.
"The first part was pretty good. We were just awful at our (coaching) clinic yesterday and had to stop it a couple times. The first quarter was pretty good, but after that the score kind of dropped. They got tired, but that's why we do it, to get game conditioning and play with fans.
"I think we have a lot of interchangeable parts, a lot of guys can do different things. As a staff, we're gonna figure out how to blend them together. That's our biggest goal and our biggest challenge."
The Illini demonstrated some traits that should help them this season. For instance, they created numerous free throw opportunities by attacking the basket.
"We have a lot of people who can get to the hoop. It's something we've worked on since this summer. Every day we call it 'Attack.' Get to the basket, get to the paint to create for others."
A negative trend all summer and fall has been a propensity for turnovers. Officially, the Illini had 18 turnovers. Unofficially, 14 of them were unforced errors that could have been avoided with better care of the ball.
"We had 19/18 assists/turnovers. It's been our biggest troublesome thing, as far as taking care of the basketball and trying to make the home run pass."
In a big improvement since last week, the Illini tried feeding the post. Meyers Leonard in particular was the beneficiary.
"Yeah, finally," Leonard agrees. "Sometimes it's hard for them. We've been working in practice on post entries. It's nice to see they're looking for me because they know I'm gonna look for them."
Leonard and Egwu can be assets with their length, so Weber has been encouraging feeding the post daily in practice. Griffey wants to work with them on a high-low game.
"Coach has made an emphasis in practice to get Meyers and Nnanna the ball inside. He's been stressing that to me. If I'm not playing that role, who is? It's definitely big to pass to each other. A lot of it is chemistry, just getting used to playing with each other. We're coming along."
Paul in particular found Leonard Sunday.
"I just want to penetrate the defense more than I did last year and get open guys the ball. I drove in and got Meyers a few easy layups.
"Coach says we're all capable of making shots. But at the same time, we've got to find our bigs. We have Meyers and Nnanna, and they actually want to post. That's something we're very excited about."
Except for the turnovers, Paul was probably the best player on the court. More than anything, he was relaxed and confident. The difference from previous seasons was obvious.
"Yeah. Even last week in the scrimmage, I was too worried about making mistakes. Today I just kind of let loose and played my game."
Griffey is becoming a consistent threat for the Illini. His stroke is confident after a lost season, and he's banging inside when possible.
"I felt good out there; I felt comfortable. I could have made a couple more shots, but I'm working on it. I felt I did good today."
Weber was pleased to share thoughts on Bertrand's play.
"He got nine rebounds, some offensive, which was very positive. He's long, he's kind of a mismatch for a lot of guards. He's got a really good pull-up jumper and can get to the basket. He's quietly done some nice things for us. This is his opportunity to prove himself.
"He's got to learn the game. I think that's his next step, to think the game, learn the game."
Weber has a number of concerns at this early stage. He shared his most pressing question afterward.
"Who's gonna step up when times get tough? This was our 9th day. You're gonna have days where everyone is tired. Who's gonna step up and be verbal, make people go, have that passion and motivation to get everyone going and then still make the play? It's got to come from the older guys.
"I think it's gonna be Sam, but you could see he limped a little bit. When he can't do it, then who's gonna be the next one? That will be the key."
Maniscalco, who had a large bag of ice wrapped around his ankle afterward, feels his game is progressing.
"Yeah, I think so. It's basketball, something I've been doing all my life. I'm just focused on leading these guys and bringing my experience and confidence with these guys. They've been doing a great job. Any success we have individually is a product of what our teammates do for us."
He probably summarized the event as well as anyone.
"I think it was pretty good. I think today it was good to get out in front of the fans and refs. It was good experience, especially with so many new guys. It will pay dividends down the road."
The Illini play an exhibition against Wayne State (Nebraska) November 1st in the Assembly Hall.