The Illinois basketball team has little chance to rest from its successful trip to Cancun. Chicago State comes to town Sunday, and then the Illini travel to Maryland Tuesday before taking on another strong Gonzaga team next Saturday.
Cougar coach Tracy Dildy has an entirely new team this year, and it shows. They have lost all five games by big margins. Illini coach Bruce Weber hopes the game will permit him to use his entire bench.
"They're a program that's had its ups and downs. They haven't won a game; it is what it is. It's a great chance for the young guys to get some minutes and to go against a variety of zones. They're gonna press us, and they're gonna play zone, trap us and do a lot of things up and down.",P>The leading scorer for Chicago State is 6'-9", 210 pound junior college transfer Jeremy Robinson, the Decatur native. He is averaging 16 points a game and 5 rebounds. Fifth year senior forward Lee Fisher (6'-5", 212) averages 12 points, 6 boards and over 3 assists a game.
Sophomore transfer forward Aaron Williams (6'-6", 215) averages 8 points and 4+ rebounds. Junior guard Matt Samuels (6'-0", 185), senior guard Ardarius Simmons (5'-10", 165) and freshman guard Clarke Rosenburg (6'-3", 170) round out those who see the most playing time.
Illini confidence has improved somewhat from earning the Cancun Challenge championship according to Weber.
"You're proud of your trip when you come out with two wins. The mindset of winning the championship is a positive step for a lot of young guys. Sammie (Maniscalco) had won a tournament at Bradley, but none of our guys had won a tournament. That was hopefully a big deal for them."
Despite two close games against what many consider inferior personnel, Weber was encouraged by the effort in the two Cancun games.
"For big stretches of games, we played pretty well. We had some breakdowns at the start of halves in both games defensively. So we've got to improve that area.
"When you go back and watch the tape, I was much more encouraged. We didn't finish the game real well against Illinois State, but that's part of being a young, inexperienced team.
Decision-making, who gets the ball, decisions like that, we gave other teams opportunities. We didn't put Richmond away, and we gave Illinois State chances. We were fortunate to win the game."
While he didn't continue the success against ISU, Meyers Leonard appeared to be making significant progress in the semifinal.
"Meyers had a big game against Richmond. We were able to take good advantage of their switching. We did a good job of leading him and getting him the ball. He played at a high level and was an inside force with his shot-blocking and rebounding."
Weber was especially pleased for D.J. Richardson. Playing well, shooting a high percentage and being named MVP of the tournament has to give him a much needed confidence boost.
"I thought D.J. has been very consistent. He's been our leading scorer, he's made shots, he's defended. I was happy for him to get the MVP. Meyers could have easily been an all-tournament pick also even thought he didn't have a great game against Illinois State."
Fifth year senior Maniscalco provided something not seen with the Illini the last two years, and it helped both games.,P>"Sammie has that will to win. Wanting the ball at the end of games is very helpful."
Maniscalco's ankle appears to have survived games on consecutive nights.
"I think Sam was fine...he was not limping at the pool or when we got back. It was a good test for him, but there's still a long way to go."
Weber needs to rest his senior leader more to insure he has no relapse with his ankle.
"I thought we probably extended our minutes too much on him, especially the second night. Tracy (Abrams) makes some mistakes here and there. But when I watched the film he gives us energy, he plays real hard. We have to do a better job of giving him a little extra time, making sure he's in there with Brandon (Paul) or somebody who can help with handling the ball."
Weber reverted to a more cautious substitution pattern in Cancun in order to win games. He knows he must continue to play his reserves.
"I didn't get the bench enough minutes. Hopefully that will change a little bit. I thought the Richmond game was very hard for them to play. Mike Shaw had three fouls in four minutes. Nnanna (Egwu) gets five fouls in seven minutes. We needed them to play at a high level in both of those games, but at the same time they need experience."
Weber believes he will have one additional player ready for minutes against Chicago State.
"Hopefully Myke Henry is up to par and gets to practice a couple days full go and can go into the game against Chicago State."
Weber will give Henry practice time at power forward. He explains why.
"I think that gives him the least responsibility for his learning so much. It puts him where he can pick and pop. And then defensively, maybe he can match up with somebody maybe not as quick. I think that will help him. He's one of our best rebounders, to be honest."
Illini assistants will need to remind Weber to continue liberal substitution patterns.
"I hope I can get a little more confident. I don't know if we can get back to the extreme where everybody's splitting time, but I'm hoping Nnanna can get 14-16 minutes, Tracy can get 14-16 minutes. It depends on the game.
"Hopefully Mike Shaw can get more confident, and the game won't come as fast to him and we can give him some positive minutes. I should have put Ibby (Djimde) in a couple minutes because he defends and plays hard. And Myke Henry can shoot the basketball. He's got a lot to learn on other things, but if we can get him to practice again and feel good about him...depth can be one of the keys to our success."
One big fly in the ointment is Brandon Paul's continued slump. When he's not hitting shots, the rest of his game suffers also.
"Brandon's got to get more consistent and get away from forcing the three so much. I thought the second half (against ISU) he attacked the basket and did some good things with that."
Weber hopes the Chicago State game can serve as a stepping stone for the Maryland and Gonzaga games coming up next week.
"Hopefully we can play well enough Sunday where we can get people quality minutes before the week coming up."