The Illinois basketball team takes its show on the road in a neutral court showdown with 9-2 UNLV in Chicago's United Center at 4:00 pm Saturday. Thousands of Illini fans will fill the massive arena hoping for a victory, one that has eluded them in recent seasons. Illini coach Bruce Weber explains some of the perks of playing a game at the home of the Chicago Bulls.
"It's a good game for us. It's always great to go to the United Center. The kids enjoy it, the fans enjoy it, it's good for recruiting. Hopefully we can get a win Saturday and begin to make some progress."
Illini coaches hope a number of Chicago area high school standouts will accept invitations to the game.
"We'll probably have kids there. A lot depends on whether they have Saturday night games or not. NCAA rules limit a little bit. You can't really have contact with them like you would if they came here on campus.
"It's positive, they're seeing us play up close in person, the excitement of the crowds, the great support we have up there. If they were all seeing us here, we couldn't probably give them all enough time.
"When you go to the recruits, it's a positive vehicle. If you play well and there's a great crowd, it's very positive. The chatter on the Internet and on talk radio becomes positive. It has a lot of dividends."
Senior transfer Sam Maniscalco is especially eager to play in the home of Michael Jordan. It is his first time.
"I'm looking forward to it very much. It'll be a great atmosphere; it's a big place. Being from Chicago and having so many guys from Chicago on the team, we're definitely excited about the opportunity to play there."
Maniscalco has many fond memories of the place as a fan over the years.
"We had season tickets for the Bulls during their dynasty era in 1997-98. I've been to playoff games and one finals game too. And I've been back to see some pro games. I'm very excited about the opportunity to go up there. I'm sure all of us will have a lot of fans and family at the game. I may have 50 or more. We're gonna need all our fans."
Weber has his work cut out for him this weekend. UNLV will seek payback for its loss to the UI in the NCAA Tournament last spring, and it has already conquered national power UNC this season.
"It's gonna be a big challenge. UNLV is a team we played last year in the NCAA Tournament. We played about as well as we could in that game. They have quite a few guys back, and they've also added Mike Moser, a transfer (from UCLA) who's one of the leading rebounders if not the leading rebounder in the country.
"They have a lot of versatile weapons. They can really score the basketball. They have a new coach (Dave Rice), someone who is familiar with that program. He played a year with Coach (Jerry) Tarkanian and has taken over after being an assistant at BYU. You knew how Coach Tark's teams played. You knew they were gonna truly be the Runnin' Rebels.
"They score nearly 80 a game. It's gonna be our job to slow them down. When they get going, you saw what they could do in the Carolina game. They can hit those threes in barrages and really take it to you. We have to do a good job of defending. I've talked to the kids about how important transition defense, defending and disrupting them is gonna be in the game."
The five starters are senior Chase Stanback (6'-8", 210), the sophomore Moser (6'-8", 195), senior Oscar Bellfield (6'-2", 185), junior Anthony Marshall (6'-3", 190), and senior Brice Massamba (6'-10", 245). Stanback and Moser both average around 14 points a game, and Moser pulls down 12.3 boards a game to go with his 14 point average. Bellfield and Marshall both have around a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Junior guard Justin Hawkins (6'-3", 190) doesn't start, but he is third on the team in scoring at 10.8 points a game. He is tied with Bellfield for that distinction. Sophomore Carlos Lopez (6'-11", 215), senior Kendall Wallace (6'-4", 190), and junior Quintrell Thomas (6'-8", 245) all see significant playing time.
Seven Rebels played against the Illini last year for Lon Kruger's team, but differences are noticeable this season with Rice at the helm according to Weber.
"Last year they shot it pretty quickly. But these guys are probably shooting it even quicker in transition than they did last year. They're coming at you right away: quick ball screens, pull-up jumpers, roll-and-play threes.
"Lon's team maybe, if they didn't have quick transition, they were gonna put you on defense a little bit and run some kind of set. I think they're just as aggressive on defense; they had a pretty firm foundation of defense.
"I was with a Wisconsin coach at a game yesterday, and he said they're better on defense than they get credit for. Part of that is they're older, and they have a pretty good foundation."
Illini center Meyers Leonard can expect to be contested in the post.
"They have some big people inside, so they can take up space on the interior. I would anticipate post traps; they double a little bit. So we have to adjust to that a little better than last time."
It will be interesting to see how the Illini play Saturday. They had minimal practice time through the first 10 games, so practices this week should be an advantage. But finals week has been a burden to all the Illini players, especially the freshmen.
"This stretch has been good for the guys, especially for someone like Nnanna (Egwu). He had a smile on his face at 11:00 Tuesday morning, about his first smile in ten days.
"He's not the only one. Even the upperclassmen. Brandon (Paul) is a good student, but just like all the other students on campus, you're staying up late, scrambling finishing papers, studying for tests. You come to practice and you're thoughts aren't there.
"Once we got through Tuesday, we seemed to be a little more refreshed. Hopefully fresh minds, fresh legs, and hopefully you play well."
The Illini are far from a finished product at this point. Win or lose, Weber hopes more than anything to keep improving game after game. The upcoming Big Ten season will be tougher than first thought; the Illini need every bit of experience they can muster to face that challenge.
"That's probably the most important thing, to continue to make progress as a team. The League is a big surprise nationwide with six teams in the top 25, and two right on the verge of getting in. It's gonna be a heck of a league race; I think we'll be #1 RPI as a league unless we have a total failure during this last week of nonconference."
As for UNLV, Maniscalco believes the key to success is solid defense.
"We've got to guard them. That's the biggest thing we've got to do. We have to try to take them out of their actions. They do a lot of dribble-drive motion, penetration-kick, and they're not afraid to shoot the ball. When it's going in, they're awfully good.
"We need to stick to our principles defensively and be as solid as we can and get some stops. And hopefully convert on the other end."
D.J. Richardson says Illini freshmen need to step up and make more of a contribution. He is focused on preparing them mentally for the game.
"First we need to talk to our young guys. They need to be a big part and be more productive on the court. Make sure everyone is ready. We can't come out flat. We've got to stay in the gym and prepare for UNLV. They took out a top team earlier in the season. We've got to be prepared for these tougher games. It starts with leadership."
Hard to believe, but no current Illini player has ever won a game in the United Center. They want to change their fortunes Saturday according to Weber.
"The juniors have brought it up to me, 'We have succeeded in the Big 10/ACC Challenge, but we haven't won in the United Center.' Now let's do something about it. We've got to play a good ball game against them to have a chance to win."