Illini Face Stiff Challenge At Vanderbilt

The Fighting Illini basketball team travels to Nashville to take on the Vanderbilt Commodores Thursday. The first road game of a season is always a challenge, but this one will be especially difficult for the youthful Illini. Vanderbilt is big and talented, and their unique gymnasium gives them a decided home court advantage.

Illinois Coach Bruce Weber is close friends with Kevin Stallings, the Commodores' mentor. Weber knows his Illini must play sound defense to have a chance.

"They're a good offensive team. It's always difficult playing on the road the first time. Kevin's a very good offensive coach, one of the best offensive coaches I've ever been around. I coached him, he was our grad assistant, he assisted with me and was my roommate. He was an intelligent basketball player, and now he's an intelligent offensive coach."

Memorial Gym was built in 1952, and it has a unique arrangement where the team benches are on the endline. Weber joked about his personal challenge adapting to the court.

"It will be different. I have a tendency to not stay in the box as it is, so I wonder what the heck I'll do there. They might have to latch me up to a rope, like they use for little kids, that goes only so far to keep me in.

"It's kind of like Mackey (Purdue). It's low around the court, so if you put the benches normally, it's gonna obstruct the view. I think they keep it because it is an advantage, and you use any advantage you can get. I don't know of any other place in the country that has it. So it takes some adjustment to deal with."

Illinois guard Trent Meacham has played there before, as a freshman at Dayton. He is warning his teammates about what to expect.

"It's gonna be tough at Vanderbilt. It's a tough place to play...we got killed. It's a great environment, so it's gonna be fun. It'll be a learning experience, and I'm excited for the trip. It's just a different environment, and they have good fans. This is what you play for. I'm excited to see how we can do."

Vanderbilt has put together three excellent recruiting classes in a row, and it is truly an international team. There are players from Sweden, Australia, Nigeria and Cameroon in addition to athletes from Brooklyn and North Carolina on the East coast and Oregon and California on the West coast. There are no seniors and only two juniors, but there is no scarcity of talent.

The biggest Commodore threat is 6'-11", 250 pound sophomore center A. J. Ogilvy. The Australian had an impressive freshman debut, averaging 17 points and 6.7 rebounds a game last season. He is agile and adept. Weber offers high praise for Ogilvy.

"We're gonna need (Mike) Tisdale and (Rich) Semrau, all the big guys when we go to Vandy because their big man is one of the best ones in the country."

Freshman Nigerian Festus Ezeli has joined Ogilvy in the starting lineup to begin the season. Festus is even larger at 6'-11", 255. Freshman Jeffery Taylor (6'-7", 205) starts at the other forward spot.

Other big guys who see time include Lance Goulbourne, a 6'-8", 225 freshman; Darshawn McClellan, a 6'-7", 240 pound sophomore; Andre Walker, a 6'-7", 220 sophomore out of Homewood-Flossmoor, Illinois; Joe Duffy, a 6'-8", 225 sophomore; and Steve Tchiengang, a 6'-9", 240 freshman out of Cameroon. Illinois' slender big men face a supreme challenge in and around the basket.

Texas junior Jermaine Beal (6'-3", 205) is the guard who makes Vanderbilt go. Last year, he averaged 7.6 points and 4.6 assists, and he is expected to extend those averages this season. His backcourt running mate is George Drake, a 6'-4", 215 redshirt junior. But Brad Tinsley, a 6'-3" freshman, will see plenty of playing time. The sharpshooter must be identified and defended everywhere on the court.

As young as Illinois is, Vanderbilt is actually younger. This may be the one advantage Illinois can exploit Thursday, according to Weber.

"They've got a lot of young guys. I think he (Stallings) told me 8 or 9 guys will be playing their second college game. I hope it gives us a little bit of a competitive advantage. We're still young, but I think we have a little more experience."

The Illini will need every advantage they can muster. Weber summarizes the keys to a road victory.

"If we play that hard, we have a chance. Defending them on the road gives you a chance to win. And we've got to take care of the ball."

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