Illinois coach Bruce Weber is teaching his young team basics. They must learn how to play together, how to use their offensive and defensive schemes to advantage, how to set each other up for quality shots and much more. They must also learn to respect each opponent.
"Preparation is so important," Weber reminded after the Illini overcame a stubborn SIU-Edwardsville quintet. "I did a trivia question. I asked them if they knew where Belmont was. Only one guy knew where Belmont was. They just took Duke down to the wire, and they won 30 games last year.
"You've got to understand the basketball world. SIU-E came in here two years ago, and we embarrassed them. They have older guys, and you knew they'd be ready to play. It wasn't gonna be as easy."
That it wasn't. The Cougars lacked height, but they used as many players as the Illini and battled throughout the game. Weber praised the effort of Lennox Forrester's team.
"I thought their guys played way harder than they did two years ago. They were pretty active, feisty and competitive. It was a good game for us."
The Illini used a height advantage to dominate the boards 48-27. Tyler Griffey was a bear on both ends, grabbing 14 rebounds. Meyers Leonard added 11 as both Illini bigs enjoyed the best rebounding efforts of their careers. And defensive intensity was strong most of the game according to Weber.
"We played hard, we had 45 on the MATTO, we had 11 blocked shots, 7 steals and did a great job on the boards, which was one of the things I worried about."
Weber offered special praise for Griffey, who added 10 points and two assists.
"Great for him, good confidence builder. And he did it in 25 minutes. I told all those guys, you're gonna play 22-25 minutes, and you can still get great numbers. You've got to be very active in those periods."
Forever humble, Griffey was pleased with his game.
"The ball was coming off the rim to me. I was able to find it and go get it. First career double-double, I'm happy about that. I need to make that a regular occurrence."
The Illini played a sloppy floor game; many of their turnovers were unforced.
"We're still learning, learning about each other. We couldn't sustain runs. We didn't make the easy pass. Obviously 22 turnovers, and a lot of them were our older guys. Meyers and Brandon (Paul) had four, Sammie (Maniscalco) had three."
Tracy Abrams had two of his five miscues to begin the second half, resulting in four quick Cougar points.
"Tracy got a little shook, a little humility check for him. I thought first half he was fine. He just got rattled a little bit at the start of the second half."
On the positive side, junior guard D.J. Richardson tied his career high with 20 points on 7 of 12 shooting. He also had three assist and zero turnovers in 31 minutes while also playing a good defensive game. He feels extra practice before the game did the trick.
"I came in an hour before we had shoot-around and got up a lot of shots. I focused on having a better shooting night. I kept a positive attitude last game when I shot it bad and worked hard on the defensive end."
Paul struggled from the field, going just 2 of 9. His driving dunk-and-one gave the Illini their final 20 point margin of victory and boosted his point total to seven for the game. He added four assists and six rebounds, but Weber reminded the Illini need Paul to be more active.
"We've got to get Brandon going. He's got to get more involved and play harder. He led us on the play-hard (chart) last year, and he was an active rebounder. He's got to do more of those things."
As will be repeated frequently throughout the early part of the season, the Illini have a long way to go figuring out how to play together and maximize their talents. Each game is part of that process, and wins are always appreciated regardless of the score and opponent.
The Illini host Lipscomb as part of the Cancun Challenge Thursday night at the Assembly Hall.