Recently had the chance to sit in on an Illinois basketball practice and I was blown away by the hard work and hustle of this team, even in practice. The practice began with a ten-minute shoot around. Almost instantly, a three point shooting contest broke out, in which a certain sweet-shooting sophomore and an All-American junior were draining every three they attempted. Then the sophomore went off, making ten threes in a row, which all hit nothing but the bottom of the net. But the three point shooting contest had to come to an end as the real practice was set to begin.
The players were separated into groups—the big guys worked on their post maneuvers and ball-denial skills, which proved to be one of the more interesting drills of the day. The Bigs had to stop two passes to the post from three coaches, who were standing on the perimeter feeding the post man the ball. They were required to deny every pass that came to the post; if they failed, the drill started over again. This wore on some players, and as they looked more and more drained, the rest of the team began to clap and encourage them through to the finish.
As practice progressed, so did the players' intensity. They ran through plays, and every single shot and pass was defended just like it was in a game. The rebounds were hard-fought. When the ball got loose, the players around it hit the floor and wrestled for possession until the coaches blew their whistles. The team practiced at this level for a solid hour until they got their first water break. After they returned from the short break, things got even more intense. A few players walked toward what looked like a vertical jump drill. They started by standing on a platform, with belts around their waists. Bungee cords were attached to both their belts and the platform. The players jumped straight up in the air repeatedly; each time the cord restrained them. Meanwhile, the guards worked on separation drills, where they had to get free from Coach Webster with one dribble and a quick shot. They also put their time in on defense, with the guards running through screens while the coaches held up massive pads to try to prevent the players from getting through the pick.
The team finally got to scrimmage toward the end of practice. It was Blue vs. White, with the Blue team composed of upperclassmen and starters while the White team had a lot of underclassmen. But the White team had one big weapon—the preseason Big Ten Player of the Year. The scrimmage looked very official, and it was called just like a game and real referees officiated. From the opening tip, both squads pushed the ball hard. They ran and ran and ran some more. I was tired just from watching all the running and gunning! The scrimmage lasted eight minutes. The Blue team got out to a substantial lead and kept it that way for some time. With about a minute left to play, and his team down big-time, the probable All-American took over the game. He made two quick steals and finished them both with slam dunks. He also hit two long threes to bring his team closer to the lead. But the Blue team's early dominance was too much to overcome in the end.
Anybody who has watched Illinois in practice knows this much: if hard work, dedication, and team unity are what it takes to get to St. Louis this year, then I'll see all you Illini fans there. This team (which is a team in every sense of the word) is going to be very special.
Illinois Basketball Practice Report
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