Illini open 2011-12 Season With Exhibition

The Fighting Illini basketball team begins the exhibition portion of its schedule Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall against Wayne State of Nebraska. With the regular season beginning 11 days later, the Illini need to answer a number of questions. And they are tired of beating up on each other. For many Illini fans, it will be their first chance to see the newcomers in action.

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber is eager to get into the exhibition portion of his schedule, although he's playing an unfamiliar opponent.

"We don't know a whole lot about Wayne State. They are a young team, much like us. It will be good for our kids to have a chance to pound on somebody else.

"Their coach is Paul Combs. I've known him since he was a young kid. His grandfather was the team doctor at Purdue for many years. I've stayed in touch with Paul, and he's worked his way up various levels of coaching. Paul has asked for many years, and I gave him the opportunity to come."

The Illini will not be at full strength.

"We've had a tough 3-4 day stretch. Obviously, it was announced last week Devin Lankford broke his finger and had surgery last Wednesday. We're hoping he'll be out four weeks at the most, but it could be as much as six. I feel really bad for him because he missed the summer part, he started to get going, and now he's out again.

"On the same day, Tracy (Abrams) had his tooth knocked loose, Tyler Griffey had stitches. Both of those guys are okay. Joe Bertrand has a hip pointer. He has not practiced the last couple days, and I would say he's questionable for the exhibition game. We'll see if he can go a little bit (Monday).

"And then we'll probably hold out Sammie Maniscalco for the game, mainly because he pushed himself and we pushed him pretty hard early. We thought we'd sit him back down a little bit and give some other guys opportunity. We hope to have Sammie back in the mix next week."

The injuries are not ideal, but the reason for them gives Weber optimism. He loves how his kids get after it every day.

"Our guys play so hard in practice, I've actually had to back down the time of practice. One because they're young, but the other part is they go so hard that we won't get through the season if they continue to have injuries. They are on the floor all the time battling. And there's good competition, which is very good."

While Weber plans to use more players this year and rotate them to keep them fresh, he will base Tuesday's starting lineup on who has the most hunger to win.

"We have a lot of competitive games during practices and scrimmages. We keep tabulating for the guys. We told the kids it would determine who starts the first exhibition and who plays the first rotations.

"Everyone's gonna play, but we tried to make it meaningful to them. Tyler Griffey has been the leader for most of the whole first two weeks. Nnanna (Egwu) is right behind him. Those two guys have been the most consistent.

"We would like the guys to take some pride in it. I talk a lot about having that competitive spirit. You can't just turn it on in the game; you have to do it every day. These games, especially early, we'll rotate guys and play a lot of guys.

"If you are consistently below the 40% to 60% range, you'd better pick up your competitive drive and approach practice a little differently. Otherwise, you're not gonna be competing like you should in the games."

Griffey is mild mannered off the court. He claims not to know why he has won more scrimmages than his teammates, but he sees a correlation between practice success and winning on game day.

"It's just playing hard every day in practice. Me and Myke Henry had been on the same team all but the last two days. We were neck and neck, but we got separated a little bit. He dropped and I stayed the same.

"It's been competitive. Getting into a game-like atmosphere, trying to beat your opponent, making sure it means something. That's always positive."

Monday contests will determine whether Egwu starts Tuesday. He always plays hard regardless.

"You try and focus on winning games," Egwu states. "I want to keep playing hard as hard as I can and try to produce on the floor. I'm excited, and all the freshmen are excited."

Speaking for all the freshmen, Egwu says the contrast between now and this time last year is stark.

"It's kind of amazing. A year ago you're getting ready to play high school basketball. A year later, you're getting ready to play college basketball. It's exciting for us freshmen to see how college really is and get a feel for our team. We haven't played a game against a real opponent since Italy, so it's exciting to see if what we did in Italy comes forward."

With Maniscalco out, Brandon Paul and Abrams will see most of the time at point guard. Weber was asked how Abrams is progressing at the position.

"Tracy's had the turf toe, he's had a hamstring problem. He missed a few days and then got back going again, but at the end of practice he hobbled a little bit. Then he gets his tooth knocked loose. But he is a tough kid. One thing we said since we recruited him, he's a little bulldog and has a great intensity and doesn't back down. So he should be fine.

"I think the best thing is he has made improvement almost every day. The last 3 days, we've really noticed it as a staff. He's starting to understand the game. He's a physical point guard. He's physical on defense, he's physical with the basketball.

"He sometimes goes too far. The thing he has to learn is angles in space and that you don't have to make a play every time you touch the ball. Sometimes it's getting into stuff, which is different than high school where they needed him to make a lot of plays. We need him to make plays, but we also need him to lead our team's offense. That's where he's made his biggest strides."

Junior shooting guard D.J. Richardson feels the Illini are ready for their first game despite the rash of injuries.

"I think we're prepared. We've been really doing a good job getting ready, and I think everyone's gonna be mentally focused. Tracy has been playing well the last couple days and been more confident. Myke Henry has been crashing the boards pretty hard. You've still got Mike Shaw playing well, taking charges. And you've got Nnanna playing like one of the best players on the team. I think we'll be pretty prepared."

Richardson hopes the new version of the Illini will go for the jugular in games they are heavy favorites.

"Last year we beat some teams, but we didn't really beat them like we should have beat them. We'd like to take this game by 20, 30, 40 points and just keep going. Like we did in Italy, keep expanding our lead instead of going back and forth trading points."

Paul tries to take every opponent seriously.

"We're looking for us to compete. We've been challenged with a lot of injuries on our team, but we're gonna fight through it. We're gonna compete because we know the team we're playing is gonna try to beat us."

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard is also excited for the start of the season, both for himself and his team.

"I'm up to 242 pounds. I'm playing better than I ever have and jumping better than I ever have. I'm playing consistently without being as tired as last year. I'm pretty confident.

"The ability of our team to make plays is pretty high. We had some offense last year. I feel we've gained some more this year. A lot of our guards can do special things. Joe is an unbelievable athlete, Brandon, D.J., all the guys. I think we're gonna play hard and make some plays."

Griffey perhaps summarizes the upcoming exhibition best.

"We're 14-15 days in practice now, and we're used to beating on each other. We want someone else. It should be a fun atmosphere, a fun game."

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