Will St. Bonaventure Be Trap Game For Illini?

The youthful Fighting Illini basketball team has continued to learn and improve with each passing game. The 8-0 record has earned it national recognition and a big confidence boost. But the game after a big win is called a "trap game" for a reason. Can the Illini sustain their winning formula against St. Bonaventure Wednesday night?

Illinois hosts dangerous St. Bonaventure Wednesday night in the Assembly Hall. Illini coach Bruce Weber has been pointing to this game for awhile, the game after a nationally televised match with highly rated Gonzaga.

"You just hope with our guys this isn't a trap game. I brought it up to them 10 days ago, making sure they understand we're gonna have to come and play on Wednesday night."

It is easy to let down emotionally after a big win, especially if the opponent isn't a national power and you are a young team like the Illini. Weber should be concerned, especially since the Bonnies are better than their record indicates.

"They are already very road-tested. They've played at Cleveland State. That was a close game, right after Cleveland State took it to Vanderbilt. They won at Siena. They played at Virginia Tech, that was very close and was back and forth.

"And they played well at Buffalo, who had just beaten Dayton 30 at Dayton. And Dayton had just beaten Minnesota for a championship in a tournament. They're not gonna come in here 'deer-in-the-headlights.'"

Adding to Illini problems is a couple players drawing NBA looks in 6'-9", 250 pound senior Andrew Nicholson and junior Demetrius Conger (6'-6", 205).

"A lot of people say Nicholson is a definite NBA prospect. He struggled with bronchitis a little bit, but he came back and had a huge game on Saturday against Buffalo. He went 8 for 9 and 7 and 8 from the free throw line for 23 points and 8 rebounds. A versatile guy, a tough matchup for anybody in the country.

"Nicholson is that mobile big guy that can step out and shoot the ball. He's shot some threes. But he's also big enough to go inside with a variety of post moves, get rebounds. Just a good all-around game."

Nicholson is averaging 14.4 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. Conger is right behind with 12.2 points and 5.2 boards a game. He is a good three point shooter, a great free throw shooter and has good ball handling skills including a nice spin move. He is a tough defensive matchup for the Illini.

The Bonnies, coached by Mark Schmidt, are more than a two man team. Senior Da'Quan Cook (6'-8", 235) scores just 7.6 points a game but averages 6 rebounds. He has a strong inside presence. Cook makes a big screen for his teammates, and he gets points on backdoor cuts.

The other starters in their last game were sophomores Matthew Wright (6'-4", 190) and Charlon Kloof (6'-3", 195). But senior Michael Davenport (6'-5", 210) and junior Eric Mosley (5'-10" 170) score at a higher clip. Mosley is the team's biggest three point threat.

Whether the Illini take heed remains to be seen. But they have certainly imprinted Weber's words on their brains.

"St. Bonaventure is a good team, and they're in a good conference," echoes Sam Maniscalco. "They're gonna come in here looking to play hard and looking to win. We've got to approach it with the same attitude. We can't look past these guys. We have to come with the right mindset."

Brandon Paul says he and the other team leaders reminded teammates not to rest on their laurels after the Gonzaga win.

"We had fun right after the game, but we told the guys, 'That game is over with. Try to get better for the next game.' We just want to keep getting better and strive to be great. Keep looking for improvement."

Tyler Griffey doesn't want the euphoria of the team's first national ranking distract from the task at hand.

"It's good; we're finally getting some respect, some national attention. But we can't really worry about that. We've just got to come out and play. We had a big week last week, but in some ways this week is even bigger."

Weber is generally pleased how the Illini played against Gonzaga. But they will need to elevate their game further to reach season goals.

"It's a good win early in the season. We can still get better, and that's gonna be the key. I thought our bench was very good, everybody helped.

"I'm pleased with them. I think they've got a little toughness, a little guts, good body language, great attitude. They play hard, and those things all add up to making some good progress.

"But we've really got to get better in practice. If we don't get better in practice, we're not gonna be ready to face the opponents we'll face as the season gets tougher and tougher."

Defense was a concern during the Gonzaga game.

"I'm a little disappointed in our defense to this point. I thought we let them score too easily, didn't fight them enough."

Weber's freshmen are playing quality roles off the bench, but they have much to learn about preparing for individual teams.

"The young kids have to understand they have to make progress defensively. It's hard for them to play extensive minutes if they don't understand what the other team is doing. They give people easy looks, easy layups.

"It's anticipation on the defensive end, reaction on the offensive end. If you're sitting there thinking, you can't do either one of those."

The Illini offense is also evolving. As Meyers Leonard begins to have success inside, it opens up opportunities for his teammates. Weber says his players need to look toward Leonard more.

"We have to realize we've got to look inside to Meyers until they post-trap him. And even if they do post-trap, we can play off it. So we need inside touches. I think they're starting to figure that out and realize that if we go to him, it makes it easier. We're gonna get better shots inside-out. He's a good passer and doesn't mind passing it out."

Leonard sees the possibilities from playing inside-out, especially now that he is beginning to score in the low post.

"If I get the ball in the post, if I'm double-teamed, they know I'm capable of finding the open man. I've got faith in my teammates. We have a lot of weapons. If we keep working inside-out and playing as a team, we'll be fine.

"At the beginning of the season, I believe there was some doubt about me. But I think they're starting to look at me as somewhat of a go-to scorer at times when we need a bucket. It's nice to know that, but at the same time, if I set a ball screen for someone, I know they're gonna make a big shot as well."

Leonard, who gave his teammates credit for being named co-Big 10 player of the week, understands logically he will see all sorts of banging, intimidation and other tactics to take him off his game. Whether he is prepared for it emotionally and physically remains to be seen.

"Now there's real scouting reports, there's Division 1 guys coming after you. It'll be a good test for me. But it's been nice to be semi-successful this early in the season."

Teams may zone the Illini to limit Leonard, but Tyler Griffey becomes increasingly dangerous if that happens. Gonzaga coach Mark Few said he couldn't stay in the zone with Griffey in the game due to his combination of shooting touch and passing ability.

"It's so comforting to have Meyers down there, knowing he's so athletic," Griffey reminds. "I can throw the ball practically anywhere, and he can go up and get it. Personally, I love when teams play zone because it opens up the whole middle for me and gives me room to work.'

,P>If the young Illini are to have an early season letdown, the St. Bonaventure game could be their undoing. Weber will have several questions answered Wednesday night.

"You wanted success; now you got rated. Those are positive things, and the guys should feel good about it. Can they keep their focus and their concentration? Can we come back and play well after a big win?"


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