Illini Prepare for Exhibition With Quincy

The Fighting Illini basketball team entertains Quincy in its second and final exhibition game Monday evening at the Assembly Hall. The Illini learned some things in their first exhibition, but they must continue to improve prior to their opener Friday against Loyola.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber realizes the Quincy squad facing his team Monday night may be tired from three games in three days.

"Those guys have the opportunity to play three exhibition games. Anytime they can grab them, they do. It's a little bit jammed up; they're gonna have a long road trip. They go from Drake on Saturday morning, then Sunday afternoon they have Illinois State, then us on Monday. It's a great experience for their kids especially."

Little is known about a team featuring many newcomers.

"So many young guys, I believe they have 9 or 10 freshmen, and they have quite a few Illinois kids. It's a good opportunity for Marty (Bell) and his program to have these experiences."

The Hawks have four players returning from the team that stayed close to the Illini until late in the game two years ago. Justin Brock is a sturdy 6'-8" forward who scored 12 points and pulled down 8 rebounds in that game.

Weber will see one face especially familiar to him. His nephew Austin Weber, son of Weber's brother Dave, is a freshman for the Hawks. Weber has admonished his team to not let his nephew score.

"We'll know more once we see them play. The assistant coaches and Bell were very positive about him. He's a coach's son, he has a good feel for the game, he's competitive. His biggest thing coming out of high school was his strength. He was so skinny. He grew 3-4 inches late in his high school career. He had to catch up with his body.

"He's getting near 200 pounds and is much stronger, and he can really shoot the basketball. It'll be interesting to see how he plays. Dave will be here, family reunion."

The Illini are more concerned about themselves. There is much for the young team to learn in a short amount of time.

"We're about a week away from the first game, so you're only gonna have four practices and an exhibition game in between. A lot of things still to cover."

Weber's freshmen especially needed a day off after the Wayne State exhibition game.

"We play so hard in practice, that's partly why we have so many injuries. Also the toll of the hard practices; we've gone harder and longer than they ever have in their lives. We have to be careful and help them through this process."

Four Illini have been nursing injuries, and three were withheld from the Wayne State game. Devin Lankford is still recuperating from a broken bone in his left ring finger, but Weber hopes Sam Maniscalco and Myke Henry will see some action against Quincy.

"Sam got his boot off and got moving a little bit, some conditioning in the pool. He'll participate a little bit in practice, building up to where we hope to have him in for 8-10 minutes on Monday night.

"Myke Henry practiced about half of the practice (Thursday). He's still hurting with a deep thigh bruise and quad strain. We've got to watch him.

"Devin Lankford, we had a very good report from the doctor. I think it will be more like 3 weeks. He can shoot and do some things, but we've got to really be careful to avoid contact until that thing is healed so we won't have to go back in there and reset it."

Joe Bertrand played the first exhibition but was not at full strength. Weber likes the contributions the Sterling product can make when healthy.

"He's trying to find that niche. He feels better about himself, he has some confidence. It's too bad he got hurt; that set him back. We were watching the tape of the game the other day, and we said, 'Joe, what's going on?' He just said, 'I'm not making excuses, but I was really hurting.'

He doesn't have quite the explosion and movement, especially when he has to go laterally. With hip pointers, every movement you make your hip is involved. And then when you're trying to get in a stance or make a quick movement, he just doesn't have that explosion yet that he needs.

"Once we get him healthy again, he can get in the lane, tight curls, little pull-ups. He's really good on what we call the rip dribble, that quick long step and dribble, get to the baseline, jump up and shoot little shots. Tip-ins, open court stuff. Just do what you do well. I think that's the thing he's taken some pride in and feeling a lot more confident about."

Looking back on the Wayne State game, Weber was not happy with the sluggish first half. Junior power forward Tyler Griffey recognized telltale signs of nervousness.

"We've got to come out with more intensity, more fire the first half. Everyone was a little flat, everyone had some jitters. I don't know what it was, but we have to be more assertive on offense and on defense. We can't let that happen again."

Weber has preached rebounding with this team, but he says much work is still required.

"We were down at halftime with the rebounding against a much smaller team. We won the battle of the boards, but it's something we have to really continue to emphasize. We can't let it be a negative.

"We'd like to get our guards more involved. Brandon Paul played the most minutes, 31 minutes, but he only had two rebounds. He's too good an athlete. He's got to get inside the arc and get some more boards. The same with D.J. (Richardson), 27 minutes and only had two.

"We need our big guys to rebound. Meyers (Lenoard) had four the second half and some great outlet passes. But our bigs have got to rebound. Meyers's play the second half was very positive. Our goal is for him to do that all the time.

"He has that ability, he has that potential, but he's got to be ready to go and mentally prepared to perform at that high a level. Not just for 15-16 minutes but for 30-35 minutes. And then from one game to the next."

Mike Shaw was a notable exception in the rebounding department. The freshman is proving to be a warrior, and Weber likes what he sees.

"I liked Mike Shaw, very active. He led us in rebounding with 8, he led us on the play hard chart. It's really positive for a freshman to do that."

Freshman point guard Tracy Abrams also had a positive baptism of fire. He played extensively, accumulating 5 assists without a turnover. Abrams was reluctant to brag.

"I've just been coming in, listening to Coach and trying to take in what he's saying. Implement it to my game."

More than anything, Weber remains thrilled about the tenacity and fire of his team. It is a sharp contrast to the previous couple years and more in line with his preferred style of play.

"They play hard, and that's the real positive thing. We've got guys taking charges. We had a collision in practice where Nnanna (Egwu) tried to take a charge and was a little late. He got one guy up in the air, and it was like dominoes, three or four guys got involved in it. I think we can slow these guys down and help them.

"I love their mindset that they're willing to give up their bodies on the floor. You don't have to fight them on effort on an everyday basis."

However, playing hard on defense and understanding it are two different things. The Illini still need to understand game planning and strategies.

"It's something that we have to continue to emphasize. We've had only 14 days of practice. We've developed some defensive habits and some pride on the defensive end.

"It was good to go against some of the things Wayne State did, some easy combo screens, cross screens, down screens. Learning to deal with that. Now we can get into some scouting, some strategies. Hopefully build up some habits. They'll get after it, but now they have to understand what they're doing when they do that."

Egwu is one of the most aggressive freshmen, and that leads to excessive fouling. Weber is working with him to realize when to go for the ball and when to let up to avoid fouls. But aside from that, he sees competition in practice a benefit for the team as it develops this season.

"When you go hard like this and there's no games, practices can get tough and a little bit of a grind. There are days you've got to get after them. But for the most part, they're very willing to do it.

"And the other part, there's so much competition. You want minutes, you want to play. If you don't play hard, somebody else is gonna take it. It'll be interesting if we get Sammie back on Monday, maybe Myke Henry. I think they all can give something. Then it's my and my staff's job to figure out minutes.

"At the same time, if you don't produce in your 3-4 minutes, we're gonna give somebody else a chance. If they do well, they're gonna get the extra minutes. I think that helps their mindset toward the game and also the competition for minutes and starting lineup."

Some of these early games may be easier for the Illini than their daily practices. Griffey says they are looking forward to the Quincy game.

"We have Quincy coming up. They have a couple kids from St. Louis I played against in high school, and Coach's nephew. He worked summer camps with us. It will be a fun game."

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