Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber sees the Cancun Challenge as a chance to educate his inexperienced team.
"Obviously, these early games are good for you, especially with a young team. We have three games in a six day period against different styles."
Thursday night, Lipscomb visits the Assembly Hall. The Bisons from Nashville have a young team also; four starters graduated. But they won't be intimidated by the Illini.
"Lipscomb has a pretty good tradition. They're well coached; coach Scott Sanderson has been there a long time. Of the three games, they might be the best of the three. They didn't have one of their better players playing last game. We're not sure if he'll play in this game.
"Lipscomb will press a little bit and maybe play some zones. They're athletic and quick, they spread you out. Like SIU-E they will be undersized, so it will be a tough challenge for our big guys. We'll have to deal with that and hopefully make some progress."
The Bisons beat Fort Valley State easily in their exhibition but lost to Gardner-Webb 74-71 in their first regular season game. They forced 23 turnovers but committed 25 of their own, and they lost badly on the boards.
Senior Justin Glenn (6'-8", 225) is their tallest starter. He is averaging 11 points and 6.5 rebounds in their two games. Freshman guard Zavion Williams (5'-10", 170) is averaging 18 points and 2 assists. Junior guard Jacob Arnett (6'-4", 210) is averaging 11 points and 4.5 assists a game. Additional starters are sophomore guard Robert Boyd (6'-3", 165) and redshirt freshman forward Damarius Smith (6'-4", 185).
Others likely to see playing time include redshirt freshman guard Carter Sanderson (6'-1", 170) who has 20 points in two games; JC transfer guard Deonte Alexander (6'-1", 175), 6 ppg and 2.5 assists per game; and freshman forwards Malcolm (6'-4", 190) and Marvin Smith (6'-8", 270). Malcolm is averaging 8.5 points, and Marvin 9.5.
Weber must include an injury update before each game.
"Tracy (Abrams) has had a turf toe since a picnic after we got back from Italy. That thing has flared up a little bit. Myke Henry is out.
"Devin (Langford) went to the doctor with Al Martindale on Tuesday. When they x-rayed it, they don't feel it's totally healed yet for live competition. We're probably gonna have to wait until we get back from Cancun before he can be involved in live situations."
On the positive side, sophomore guard Crandall Head will see his first action after a suspension.
"Crandall should be fine to go. Hopefully we can get a few minutes out of him. (The suspension) gave all the other guys a step up on him. He has to gain experience and the trust of the coaches. It's put him behind a little bit.
"But at the same time, we put him into the NCAA tournament, and he didn't flinch. He came in and made some big plays against Kansas. He loves to play basketball, and I don't think he'll have any hesitation when he goes out there.
"The problem we've had with him is he always goes too fast, tries to do too much. In his case, we have to hold him back. He's got great ability, he's intelligent, he's got great athleticism. He's a guy that can change a game for you. He's got to be solid and disciplined if he's ever gonna make progress."
Like SIU-Edwardsville Monday, Lipscomb will be a challenge defensively for Illini big men. Meyers Leonard showed some ability to move his feet out on the court during the Loyola game, although Weber might not be ready to have him guard a small player. Tyler Griffey knows how to play but has trouble with perimeter quickness.
Mike Shaw must learn nuances of switching screens and understanding opposing offensive schemes. Nnanna Egwu had three steals, two blocks and a deflection in short minutes last game. But Weber isn't certain he can guard the four position yet. The Lipscomb game will be a good test for them.
Illini point guard Sam Maniscalco is always a good source of information on his team's progress. He likes what he sees in terms of defense and hustle.
"I think our defense is obviously way ahead of our offense, as far as chemistry and principles. This early in the season, it's what you expect.
"Our last two games, we had over 40 on the MATTO, which is definitely a plus. It shows that guys are playing hard each and every possession. We use our depth to wear teams down; I think that is one of our strengths."
According to Abrams, Maniscalco is serving as a valuable mentor for him. He shared what he is learning from the senior.
"Just to be patient mainly. Always be in control of your game and have patience. He's been a lot of help to me. Playing the point with me being a freshman is tough. He has a lot of experience, and he's been helping me out."
Griffey explains the motion offense is still in a developmental stage due to all the inexperience running it.
"A lot of these guys haven't been in the system very long. It's getting them to work in the motion offense. To cut, to get someone else open, to screen to get yourself open. It's different things like that. We'll make the first initial cuts, then (things fall apart). It'll get better with time."
Junior guard D.J. Richardson feels this year's team has more long-term potential than last year. He explains why.
"We have better chemistry, we have tougher players. We have players that want to get better, and they learn what the coaches tell them."
While Richardson cannot always create shots for himself, he is benefitting from the hard-nosed effort of his larger teammates. This is also an improvement from last season.
"I play off my big guys. I use them to help me get open. We have guys looking to screen, willing to give their bodies up for the team. We can use them to come off tight curls. If I make a good enough cut inside of the lane, I can get it to them as well."
The Illini are far from a finished product. But they hope to continue their upward climb while winning games. They will find out if that formula is workable Thursday and the two games in Cancun next week.