SIU-Edwardsville has struggled since moving to Division-I ball. Coach Lennox Forrester's team was 8-21 last year, but Illinois coach Bruce Weber feels he is a good man for the task of building Cougar fortunes.
"I've known Lennox and have been around him. Good person, he's good for the game. He had a tough situation when he took the job due to their transition from Division--II to Division-I."
It appears he has a good combination of experience and new talent this year, based on results of his two exhibition victories.
"SIU-E is a veteran team. They have several seniors back; their guards are seniors. They have a lot of the guys we played several years ago, and they added a couple talented junior college players."
Junior college transfer Jerome Jones (6'-6", 215) had led them in scoring and rebounding in the exhibitions, going 21 and 12 in one game and 23 and 14 in the other.
"Jones, the junior college transfer, is a very talented young man, a very athletic kid who makes some plays. His stats are very impressive. It's gonna be a good matchup problem for us to deal with. He'll step out and make shots, while at the same time go inside and rebound."
Senior Mt. Zion forward Mark Yelovich (6'-6", 223) is their leading returnee according to Weber.
"With Yelovich, he's got a very good shooter. He was out last year due to injury, but we did play against him a couple years ago. He's gonna give us a big guy that can step out on the court and do some things. It's good for our guys like Mike Shaw and Tyler (Griffey) to have to guard a guy like that."
Other expected starters include junior forward Derian Shaffer (6'-7", 230) senior guard David Boarden (6'-4", 204) and Buffalo Grove senior guard Kevin Stineman (6'-0", 198). Shaffer scored 18 points and grabbed 7 boards in one exhibition.
Freshman guard Kris Davis (6'-2", 179) and senior guard Corey Wickware (5'-10", 175) each started an exhibition game for the Cougars. Other players expected to play include freshman forward Michael Birts (6'-6", 200), freshman forward Charles Joy (6'-5", 225), JC transfer guard Reggie Reed (5'-9", 165) and Metamora junior Zeke Schneider (6'-9", 225).
The Illini appear to be more advanced defensively than offensively early in the season. Weber hopes pressure defense will help defend the Cougars.
"I hope our pressure affects their senior guards, but the rest of their team is younger kids. Hopefully we can wear them down, which we did the other night I thought."
Weber hopes defensive pressure will offset an offense in its infancy.
"Our vision for this season is to pressure people on the defensive end and push the basketball. I think our guys have bought into it. We have some athleticism. Meyers (Leonard) has shown some shot-blocking ability, and with Nnanna (Egwu) we have some active big men. A lot of players and coaches don't realize our length, even with our guards.
"Our young guys know they have to improve on the defensive end, or they're not gonna get to play. They have to realize that's the most important thing."
The offense may not be as far behind as some think.
"I hope we get better offensively. If D.J. (Richardson) doesn't go 1 for 7 from three, if he makes two or three of those, the (Loyola) game isn't quite as close. We missed a couple layups; maybe we were a little up-tight trying to figure something out. Also, we're going against different defensive systems."
Weber must also use these early nonconference games to find his best combinations. He hopes the experimentation will not adversely affect won-loss records.
"We'll be experimenting with lineups in different situations, playing two bigs, playing guards together, forwards together. (Forrester) doesn't have quite the size, so we may go smaller this time. It will be something that's a learning process the first couple weeks."
The Illini have minimal time to prepare after playing a Friday night game.
"It's a quick turnaround from the game Friday night. We came back before the football game. We knew we weren't gonna get a whole lot out of them. We watched film and worked out with weights, and we did some shooting and 5 on none things. Sunday we practiced and went a little harder."
The Illini will be without another one of their promising youngsters.
"Myke Henry hurt his ankle yesterday in practice. The report we have from Al (Martindale) is he may be out from a week to ten days. I'm disappointed for him. Both him and Devin (Langford) have had some tough times for freshmen. I hope it's not that bad."
The Illini don't know much about this year's Cougar team, but Weber knows they will fight hard.
"This is their first game. We've seen tapes of their exhibition games, but we expect a team that will be very motivated having a chance to play an in-state game. Hopefully our guys will be ready to continue to play hard and also make improvement."