The Illinois basketball team has tons of athleticism but little experience as it wades into its new season. Illini coach Bruce Weber anticipates a deep team capable of playing hard-nosed defense. But he needs the early portion of his schedule to find out which players will see the most playing time.
"This is the start of our season. For us, it's a work in progress. I think these early games are important for us. We learned a little bit on the trip to Italy, we learned a little more in the two exhibitions. Now we've got to figure some things out."
Weber hopes to use a deeper bench this year, but minor injuries to several players have limited the evaluation process.
"The injuries have hurt me with figuring rotations and minutes. It's gonna be a challenge, but I think the best thing is there's great competition. If you don't play well, someone else is gonna come in and do something."
Loyola hired Porter Moser to be it's new coach. Formerly head coach at Illinois State, Moser lost 65% of his team's scoring from last season.
"It's a big game for them," Weber reminds. "They are young, especially at the guard positions. But they have a couple big kids who are older that we're gonna have to deal with."
Ben Averkamp is probably Loyola's best player. The 6'-8" junior forward led them in scoring and rebounding in their exhibition game against Benedictine after bursting onto the scene last year. He is joined by 6'-7", 230 pound Walt Gibler in the front court.,P>Freshmen Joe Crisman (6'-4", 195) and Christian Thomas (6'-5", 207) join sophomore Denzel Brito (6'-2", 180) in the back court. Crisman played with Illini guard Tracy Abrams on the Illinois Wolves last year. He dished out 8 assists in their exhibition game. Thomas scored 16 against Benedictine and added 6 boards. Freshman London Dokubo (6'-0", 165), junior Chim Kadima (6'-4", 190) and sophomore Jonathon Gac (6'-9", 220) should all see quality minutes.
Moser spent the last few years assisting Rick Majerus with the St. Louis Billikens. Weber says he has installed much of Majerus's offense with the Ramblers.
"We're gonna really have to defend the ball screens, a lot of the stuff Coach Majerus does. Multiple ball screens on every possession. We don't want to allow them to get easy looks."
Weber would love to balance his classes by redshirting one or two players, but he doesn't appear able to do that because all six freshmen have a chance to help this year. Even Ibby Djimde, who made 9 of 10 free throws in practice Wednesday but has struggled in the exhibitions, offers Weber with a viable option.
"Each guy gives you something. Ibby has to get better on skills. But his physicality and rebounding (are good). He made three passes the other day a lot of other guys haven't made.
"Myke Henry has that old man strength. He's got the big body, he can rebound, he can shoot. It's just really a hard call.
Tracy (Abrams) is gonna play for us; obviously we're gonna need him to be productive. Nnanna (Egwu) is definitely in the mix, we've just got to get him to calm down a little bit. Devin (Langford) is the one with the finger; we've got to wait and see how long it takes for him to come back.
"I've been very impressed with Mike Shaw. I think the thing he's got to do is be rugged, rebound, play hard, defend. When he gets an open shot, jump up and take it and hopefully make it. I feel good about him and what he's done so far. I guess it's a good problem because we have a lot of guys who have the opportunity to play."
Tyler Griffey hasn't scored in the exhibitions, so some wonder whether Shaw is a better option there.
"Tyler Griffey from practice, he was definitely ahead. If you ask the players who played best the first 2-3 weeks of practice, he's be in the top two or three. But in the two exhibition games, Mike Shaw has been our leading rebounder in both of them. He led us on the MATTO in the first one, and he was up there again. They're different players.
"We've got to get Tyler some shots. That's the thing he's done in practice, he's really made shots. His teams have won. Now he's got to do it when it's game time. Tyler played some as a freshman but not much last year. He's kind of starting over like the other guys."
The unselfish Griffey seems surprised anyone would question his value to the team. After all, he has played a quality floor game in the two exhibitions, talking with teammates and helping run the offense. He has projected a mature stability that helps younger players relax.
"Other than the scoring, I feel like I've played decent," Griffey reflects. "I'm getting the troops together, rebounding, doing the little things, MATTO, defense. It just hasn't translated into scoring. I'm not trying to force anything, just letting the game come to me and stay in the flow."
Another big question mark is the availability of Sam Maniscalco. His ankle surgery is healing slower than anyone wants. He has been forced to sit out multiple practices. Weber hopes to expand his role a little at a time.
"I hope Sam can get 15-17 minutes, that would be the goal. He's got to get some conditioning back."
Maniscalco is taking a mature approach to his rehabilitation and is trying to remain patient.
"It's a little bit frustrating because of all the rehab and all I've been through. My goal going into the season was to be 100% healthy. You've got to roll with the punches. People who are most successful in life are the ones that make the best of every situation. That's what I'm trying to do right now. I'm taking it one day at a time."
Barring a last minute setback, Maniscalco will see action Friday. To say the least, he is looking forward to it after a lengthy layoff.
"I'm anxious. I haven't played in a college basketball atmosphere for awhile now, under the lights and in front of the fans. It was good to get out there Monday, my first time in Orange and Blue. It was fun and exciting. My mindset right now is anxious, but I have to be patient and smart."
He is encouraged by the play of Abrams recently. If he can't play full time, he knows Abrams will do a good job in his place.
"Tracy has been one of the best players in practice these past two weeks. He's done his job, which is to lead the team, play point guard and be solid."
The big elephant in the room for Weber is sophomore center Meyers Leonard. Weber is reluctant to praise his recent play as it tends to go to his head.
"I hate to say it, but Meyers has made a big step the last week or ten days. He's playing like we all feel he can play, posting up strong."
"Everybody knows Meyers is the X-factor for us. If he plays like he has been lately, it makes a big difference offensively and defensively. He's had a really great focus about himself the last 7-10 days and has really brought it on a daily basis."
Shaw reflects the feelings of all the freshmen when asked if he is excited to begin his college career.
"Exactly. This is what I've been waiting for all summer, ever since I came to school. I love it. We all just go out there and play hard."
His confidence level increased with his success in the two exhibitions.
"Definitely. Anytime I can help the team, it helps me. I take that real serious."
Shaw typifies the unselfish approach brought by all Illini rookies.
"I'm happy to do whatever I can to help the team when I'm out on the court. We have a good team, so everyone's gonna work hard every day. I think this is a different group of guys. Everybody's gonna compete every day."
Griffey says the freshmen have helped renew enthusiasm for the upperclassmen.
"I can't wait to get started. I love being able to play with these guys, they're a great group of kids. That makes it fun."
Weber is trying to develop a team that can be championship caliber later in the season. There will be ups and downs until then, but he is working with a formula that should pay dividends down the road.
"We need experience, which will hopefully create maturity and confidence. Those are the biggest things we're gonna have to deal with the first three weeks."
If the Illini can win while going through the development process, all the better.