CHAMPAIGN, Ill.- Saturday night the Illini opened the regular season against visiting Western Illinois. On paper this one appeared to be a mismatch from the very beginning, but with the scores from around the country showing that many of the top teams were being challenged, the Illini knew they had to knock WIU out early. And they did just that. For 14 minutes of the first half the Illini played nearly flawless basketball. Building a 37-9 lead in the first 14 minutes, the Illini took it to the Leathernecks and made sure this one would never be close. Illinois hit a wall at around the 4:00 minute mark in the 1st half but ended it with a Dee Brown 3-pointer to end the half. Bruce Weber seemed to understand why the Illini didn't close out the 1st half strong.
"You build that lead and it's human nature to get a little bored. You're on your heels instead of your toes, and we let them make a little run," Weber said.
Dee Brown led the Illini in scoring with 23 points. However, it was his constant hustle and enthusiasm that sparked his team. Brown forced 2 steals and was the beneficiary of a few breakaway layups. Brown knows his role has expanded this year. Not only will he be counted on to provide a scoring punch, he will need to get his team pumped up and ready to play defense.
"We came out with energy on defense and that was the main thing we were focusing on," Brown said. "We know we've got some work to do on the offensive end, but defensively I think we came out and played strong."
The topic of most of this preseason has been the implementation of Bruce Weber's motion offense. In their first game of the regular season some players looked solid in it, while others struggled to look comfortable. Dee Brown was one of the players that looked great running the show. He was moving quickly through nice screens and making excellent reads off what the defense was giving him. Countless times he found himself wide open for shots.
The Leathernecks were at a disadvantage the whole game. They tried a variety of gimmick defenses to disrupt the Illini but nothing seemed to work. At times they would pack the defense in all around the post players and beg the Illini to shoot the 3. Then they put a box and one on Illini star Dee Brown. Nothing seemed to work too effectively as 5 Illini players reached double digits in scoring. The Illini also cleaned the boards with James Augustine posting a career high 13 rebounds.
Overall, this game went according to plan. The Illini got a solid effort from everyone that played and cruised to a 94-66 victory. This early season test proved to be no match for the seemingly tireless Illini. Still the coaching staff and players know there are things to work on.
"I want to get leadership," he said. "I want to get maturity. I want to have someone understand tempo. If we are truly the top-20 team that everyone's saying, those are the things that I think we need to make strides with."
Illinois Grade Report:
Backcourt- The Dee and Deron show will be the main attraction all year long. Both players have made enormous strides in the offseason. Williams had an uncharacteristic 4 turnovers but made up for it by posting a near triple double. He finished the night with 11 points, 9 rebounds, and 8 assists. Brown was brilliant the whole game diving for balls, playing swarming defense, and knocking down big shots. Jerrance Howard did not score but did provide solid minutes off the bench.
Frontcourt- The Leathernecks didn't allow the Illini to beat them down low. Still all the bangers inside for the Illini were effective. Augustine played great posting a double double of 12 points and 13 rebounds. Roger Powell attacked the glass but struggled to find his outside shot. Nick Smith played great in spurts and was a little foul prone. Also, Nick looked disinterested most of the game. Brian Randle struggled early but got in the flow of the game in the 2nd half. He will need to be able to hit a consistent jumper to be considered a true small forward scoring threat. His athleticism is his strong point and he did lead the team with 3 steals. Warren Carter also had a solid 2nd half with his highlight coming from a Dee Brown alley oop. Carter was the most pleasant surprise of the night. Jack Ingram fouled out but played steady most of the game. He will be counted on to provide toughness and to hit the 10-15 foot jumper consistently.
Bench- Everyone contributed nicely in some way. It will be interesting to see who gets the minutes once Luther Head, Aaron Spears, and Richard McBride return from their suspensions. This team does not have anyone to play scrub minutes. They all belong on the court in some way and will have to battle each other to get the minutes. The unique part of the Illini bench is that each player brings a different aspect to the game.
Coaching- Bruce Weber did a nice job of rotating his players in and trying different combinations. He has the luxury of going big or small depending on the matchup. The Illini came out strong which shows that he had them prepared to start the season. He had them running from the very beginning and they looked to be well conditioned. As the season goes on, the players and coaches will get more and more comfortable with each other.
Overall- The Illini did just what was expected from most of the crowd. They took WIU out of it from the very beginning and everyone contributed nicely in some way. A great opening to the regular season. The team has already tied the football team in wins.
Aaron Spears Deron Williams and Luther Head watches AP