Coppin State Poses Finals Week Challenge

The Fighting Illini basketball team overcame the pressure of playing nationally ranked Gonzaga and emerged victorious. They then avoided the trap a strong St. Bonaventure team presented to earn a come-from-behind win. Now, can they avoid the inevitable final exams letdown? Can they shake off the rust against Coppin State?

Before Illinois head coach could think about the threat posed by an athletic Coppin State team this week, he had to help organize his squad for its final exam preparations. Practices were at odd times and didn't always include the entire team as studies and early finals interfered.

"It's a busy time. Guys have exams and papers, speeches and studying. It's a tough time. Some of our freshmen are overwhelmed, and we've got to deal with that and keep helping them."

In the midst of this setting, Coppin State visits the Assembly Hall for a 7:00 pm Sunday game. Don't be fooled by the Eagles's record. Coach Ron "Fang" Mitchell has created an extremely difficult early schedule that has produced a 3-4 record. But the four losses were road games against Loyola of Maryland, Oklahoma, Connecticut and Purdue.

"He's done a great job. They find a way to win, and they find a way to make the Tournament every other year or so. They're very guard-oriented. When we had Deron (Williams) and those guys, we really struggled with them."

Weber summarizes what the Illini face Sunday.

"They will play a variety of zones and switch them. We have to recognize defenses. They really do a good job with their guards penetrating and putting you in binds with ball screens. They may use 4-5 ball screens in a possession.

"I talked to Matt Painter briefly after they played them, and he said they gave them a decent game. They use their dribble very well. It's a different style of play that you hope prepares you as you go through the season."

Senior 5'-11" guard Tony Gallo leads the Eagles with 17.7 points, 4.4 assists and 1.9 steals a game while committing fewer than two turnovers a game. Senior 6'-4" shooting guard Michael Harper didn't start the last game, but he averages 11.1 points a game. Power forward Akeem Ellis, a 6'-6" senior, averages over 10 points and 5 boards per outing. He shares time with 6'-8" senior transfer Logan Wiens.

Water bug 5'-9" freshman Taarig Cephas is a tremendous three point shooter, hitting over half his arc shots, and is averaging more than 7 points and 2 assists a game. 6'-6" Antonio Williams and 6'-5" sophomore Michael Murray both started the last game. Junior Jordan Lee, a 6'-4" guard, also sees significant minutes. Their tallest player is 6'-9" senior deep reserve Osmon Olol.

Coppin State is experienced, with their top four scorers returning from last year. The Illini are of course favored, but they must play well to do so.

Most of the work this week has been on improving themselves. Foremost has been trying to find new ways of helping Meyers Leonard get post touches and respond to the extra attention he is getting. Leonard admits he got discouraged when St. Bonaventure double-teamed him with physical players close to his size.

"I think people are starting to scout our team and maybe key on me more. It certainly worked for a good portion of the game. I was a little frustrated, but we need to practice ways to move guys around the court and score out of it."

Twice the Bonnies forced him to go over his right shoulder to score, and he seemed hesitant. Is his lefty hook from that spot still a work in progress?

"No, I'm comfortable with that. One time I was gonna make a move over my right shoulder, but I drop-stepped a little too far and was behind the basket. It's something I can go to, I just wasn't ready because that was the first time I've faced it in college. It's a lot different than being triple-teamed in high school."

Leonard sometimes gets into an emotional funk when things aren't going well. Fortunately, he forced his mind back onto his responsibilities down the stretch.

"I finally came out of my little whatever-it-was for the last five minutes. I just did the little things I could. I guess it mattered. The tip-outs were pretty important. I've got to be more active on defense. I did well the last two possessions, but I've got to do that the entire game."

Weber saw the same thing.

"They post-trapped Meyers, and he got a little frustrated. We've got to help him with that. No one's done it to us, so it's a new experience. That's what this early season is all about.

"I think he really felt down after the game. He was very disappointed in his performance. It's all part of growing up. But he did make plays and guarded them down the stretch."

Weber has a plan to help Leonard and the rest of the team take advantage of one of their best assets.

"One, he has to square up. He can't go to the baseline, or the double-teams will keep coming. He threw a couple of cross-body passes on the baseline because he got stuck. I think he's got to post deep. That will make it tough to post-trap with him.

"Also, if we can enter from the top to the middle, it will make it tough to post-trap. If he gets the ball right in front of the rim, they can't post-trap him. And then when he does get trapped, be patient. He's a good passer, he's just got to square up or take a dribble and square up. He's bigger than most people, so he can see the open man. And we've got to do a good job of moving to the open three."

Power forward Tyler Griffey believes he can help alleviate pressure on Leonard.

"I've got to do a better job getting open, especially the high post. Once he gets double teamed, usually the double is coming from my man. I've got to dive for the basket and get open. And guards have to work on post split and post rotation once they get the ball down there."

Brandon Paul saved the day for the Illini against the Bonnies. He took over the game with consecutive drives to the hoop. Weber would like to see more of that and less of the forced threes.

"He hasn't shot it well from the perimeter. I don't think that he is as bad as he is. He's a pretty consistent 30-32% from the three point line. But he is athletic and gets to the basket. That's the thing we would like him to do more.

"We just want him to do what he can be successful at. He can create so much getting to the basket, passing to the open guy. Some of the times he makes decisions ahead of time. He's got to let the game dictate it. He would make strides if he started to do that."

Griffey feels the lessons learned in that game will help against Coppin State and the rest of the schedule.

"Nothing could go right. We were struggling, and we knew it. We couldn't get anything going. Fortunately, our defense kept us in it, so that was a positive. We're still a work in progress, and that kind of shows it. That's why we come to practice every day.

"Effort, energy and defense are things you've got to draw on. In the second half, we couldn't score but we kept getting stops. Fortunately, Brandon made a couple plays at the end to pull us out."

Senior leader Sam Maniscalco understands the ups and downs of college basketball. Winning when you're down is the key to a successful season.

"It's part of basketball. In a 29-30 game season, you're gonna have nights where guys don't shoot the ball well. I think this says a lot about this team. Playing defense and playing hard helps give us a chance to win. I think this win will definitely pay dividends for us down the road."

Hopefully, that experience will lead to a victory Sunday night.

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