One thing that was never questioned was the need for the seniors on the team to step up and be leaders, and Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle answered the call. Randle, who only played 6 minutes in the first half after picking up two quick fouls, came back to lead the team with 14 points, and Pruitt chipped in 12 points, pulled down a career-high 17 rebounds, and added a career-high 4 assists, including an alley-oop pass to newcomer Rodney Alexander that brought sold-out Assembly Hall to it's feet.
"I'm trying to work on my passing. I think they said I only had seven assists on the year last year. I don't agree with that," said Pruitt, with a laugh. "Everyone's going to be double teaming me, so I should be able to get the ball back out and make teams pay. That will help my team and help myself. I'm glad he (Alexander) finished (on the lob dunk), because if he'd missed I probably would have gotten subbed out."
The question about who will provide outside scoring for the Illini remains unanswered, as the Illini shot a woeful 3-15 (20%) from behind the 3-point arc. Trent Meacham hit 2-6 attempts, and Steve Holdren added 1-2, while the rest of the team combined to go 0-7 from deep.
The questions about redshirts candidate also remain, although a few answers came out. Freshmen Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole, Mike Davis and Jeff Jordan all saw playing time, but redshirt freshman Richard Semrau and sophomore Brian Carlwell did not see any playing time.
"Right now we've established a hierarchy," said Weber. "Obviously, I'd love to have redshirted a couple of them, but I think they can play well enough that they can help us. They (Carlwell and Semrau) are behind those guys. They have the chance, but now it's about the team and about the team winning and being successful. I wish we'd been up 25 so I could have played everyone."
Illinois struggled to find an offensive identity in the first half, scoring only 22 points on 29% shooting. The Illini had as many field goals (10) as turnovers though the first 20 minutes, and only had a 3 point lead (22-19) at the intermission.
The Illini showed a different side once the second half started. Illinois stretched their lead out on the strength of a 30-10 run over the first 10 minutes of the half, and led 52-29 after a pair of Pruitt free throws. A question from last year about closing games out remains unanswered, as the Illini allowed Northeastern to close the lead to 9 with less than a minute left.
"Coach told us not to get complacent and not to let up," said Pruitt. "Unfortunately, we kind of did that at the end. It's still something we have to improve on. It's something we did last year, and hopefully we can get it now before it's too late. When you've got a team down like that, you've just got to keep going at them, and we didn't do that at the end."
"They're a solid ballclub with a good system," said Weber. "They came right at us and didn't back down. It's the same old thing. It's maturity and putting people away. We've got to grow up and learn from it."
Next up for the Illini is a trip to Hawaii for four games, the first being a true road game against Hawaii on Friday night, before the Illini make an appearance in the Maui Classic.
"We've got a road game in a very tough place to play. Hawaii has been very successful in their gym. Then you're part of one of the most prestigious college basketball tournaments, the Maui Invitational. Everyone's watching. You're on center stage a little bit against some very good competition. We'll learn a lot about our team, and come together as a team."