Illinois burst out to a 13-2 lead on Quincy University to begin the game and coasted to an easy 73-45 win in the Assembly Hall Monday night. It was ragged at times as Illini coach Bruce Weber continues to give everyone playing time. Weber summarized the game.
"I think it was a typical second exhibition game where you're probably not quite as excited, have as much mental motivation. It wasn't very smooth; it definitely wasn't a masterpiece. But we did battle.
"The young guys may not be pretty right now, but they play hard and get to the boards. We have to try to be more patient when we get offensive rebounds, make other people pay."
The Illini dominated the boards against the smaller Hawks, outrebounding them 54-36. Weber credited his freshmen with much of the damage.
"I love how aggressive our freshmen were. You look at rebounds, Mike Shaw with 9, Myke Henry with 8, Ibby (Djimde) 5, Nnanna (Egwu) 5, Tracy (Abrams) 5. Those guys played strong, they've just got to play a little smarter."
The Illini offense stagnated during much of the first half. Some of it can be attributed to rookie mistakes. Four freshmen were seen on the floor together more than once. Weber reminds how much better the offense can be when tall center Meyers Leonard gets some touches near the basket. Leonard finished with 10 points.
"In the first half, they switched a lot of things on defense, and we kind of stood and froze, didn't move the basketball, too much dribbling, didn't look inside enough. Second half we got it into Meyers a few times, and he was able to score. That's got to be our mindset to start games."
D.J. Richardson led all scorers with 17 points, hitting 4 of 6 three pointers. He admitted he gains confidence when his shot is falling, crediting extra work after practice for the shot-making. But he didn't wish to be singled out.
"You never know who's gonna be the leading scorer or the best player on that night."
Joe Bertrand had a good all-around game as well. He scored 8 points, grabbed 5 rebounds and added three assists and three steals. He started the second half in place of Brandon Paul and admitted he is highly motivated to be named a starter.
"Everybody wants that starting spot. Coach has been changing the starting lineup every game, so practices have been real competitive. I'm really trying to get that starting spot.
"Coach has been telling me to keep playing hard. He wants me to rebound, so I've really been concentrating on that, boxing out. Taking care of the ball is another one of the things the team needs to work on."
Richardson complimented Bertrand afterward.
"He brings a lot of energy, and he's a good defensive guy as well. He's probably one of our best one dribble, two dribble pull-up guys, and one of our best midrange guys. That puts a lot of pressure on other teams."
Sam Maniscalco saw 11 minutes after missing the first exhibition while resting his surgically repaired ankle. He hit his first three pointer. But Abrams saw most of the point guard minutes, scoring 10 points, grabbing the 5 boards and handing out a couple assists. Weber praised him afterward.
"Tracy's played well, and he's still learning. The thing is, he wants to learn. I'm trying to get him to push it and attack. Not to go crazy but to put pressure on the defense. Our bigs run so hard, that if we keep pushing it, make the next pass, we're gonna get some nice looks inside. I think Tracy has been very positive. He's got to learn when to go and when not to."
Richardson likes the improvement Abrams has shown in recent practices.
"Tracy has been having great practices. He's probably been one of the best players on the team. I've been talking to him and telling him he's got to be more vocal. He's gonna get a lot of minutes at the point guard spot this year."
This Illini team will have growing pains. Experience is a big factor; it will take everyone awhile to become comfortable on the floor together. And there will be times when the Illini endure shooting slumps.
They must win through aggressive determination instead of finesse shooting. Their early schedule should give them a chance to learn about each other before the meat of the schedule arrives.
Weber has a number of questions to answer between now and then, including figuring out his rotations and how many players will see the floor. It will be a grand experiment, and it will begin Friday against Loyola at the Assembly Hall.