Illinois started Calvin Brock at the power forward to match up with the Mocassins' small size, but they weren't used to playing a combination of Brock, Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale. After struggling early, the Illini put things together and made a nice run to finish off the half with a 26 point lead. There was less focus the second half.
Coach Bruce Weber was pleased overall with first half play, blaming himself jokingly for the second half lapse.
"I think it's obvious I'm still a good first half coach and not as good a second half coach. I thought Calvin deserved to start just because he's been consistent as a fifth year senior. But we really haven't played him at the four, so our offense at the beginning wasn't great.
"They'd played a game already, so they kind of took it to us at the beginning. But then we picked up the intensity and had a pretty good 15-16 minutes to finish the half. We had shutouts, we pushed the ball, had offensive rebounds, shot the ball pretty well. We shot the ball 1-9 to start the half and then go 17-30 the rest of the half."
Illini guard Trent Meacham led the team with 17 points, four assists and no turnovers in 26 minutes of action. He was upbeat afterward.
"It was just nice to get out there and play against someone besides ourselves. We had a pretty good first half but not so much second half. We had some lapses and have to continue to improve. It felt good to get out there.
"I think our offense got going for everyone once we picked it up on defense. We got stops and got out on the break. We were more fluid with our motion offense.
"We've still got a ways to go, but we're getting better every day in practice. I feel really good about the group of guys we have. We have good chemistry."
Sophomore forward Mike Davis also asserted himself, cashing in 11 points to go with 6 rebounds and an assist. While echoing Coach Weber's words about needing to play 40 minutes, Davis agreed his play has improved since last year.
"Coach told me this week I'm a sophomore, so I've got to act like it and play hard. I've got the motion offense down a little bit now, so I'm trying to find open spots with my midrange jump shot and also rebound like Coach tells me to do."
Brock added 10 points and 8 rebounds. Junior college transfer Dominique Keller was pressing but had some good inside moves for points. He ended with 8 points and 3 rebounds. Guard Jeff Jordan showed improved shooting touch by adding 6 points, and freshman Stan Simpson also added 6 points including 4 straight free throws.
Center Mike Tisdale struggled early, getting his first two shots blocked by Florida Southern's 7'-0", 285 postman Rashaad Singleton. But he gained some confidence by finding ways to get his shot off under pressure. He finished with 6 points and 3 rebounds despite fouling out. Tisdale's backup Rich Semrau had his best outing in two years, showing strength and aggressiveness inside with 7 points and 6 rebounds.
One who didn't play well was Demetri McCamey. He sat most of the first half with two fouls and ended up making only 1 of 9 shots and producing 3 assists. Coach Weber discussed McCamey's frustrating night.
"He got in foul trouble and sat for 15-16 minutes of the first half. In the second half, he tried to do too much. He tried to get it all back quickly. And then maybe he started to lose some confidence. Hopefully, he'll learn from that and not let it happen again."
Mocassin coach Linc Darner felt his team's defense on McCamey played a role.
"We just told our guys we have to keep him out of the paint. When he starts making them, he can really shoot it and get on a roll. We had to limit it and close out, not let him shoot and get to the basket. Our guards did a very good job guarding him."
Darner has now played both Purdue and Illinois and can make comparisons. He said the winner between the two will depend on the officiating. A new emphasis on limiting hand-checking might slow down Purdue if called consistently. If not, Purdue has the advantage. Still, he praised the Illini.
"I felt for us tonight, we played a lot better than we did the other night. I think Illinois' physical size on the boards just kind of wore us out. I think Illinois is very good at the guards, I think their inside is gonna get better as the year goes along."
It was a workmanlike effort. Shooting tailed off in the second half, but 3-point shooting was a respectable 42.9%. Illinois won the rebounding battle despite having some obvious weakness in that part of the game. And they made 16 of 21 free throws, a big improvement over last season.
The announced crowd was 13,370, but there were far more empty seats than that. The Assembly Hall can seem quiet without a full house cheering on the Illini.