The Illinois basketball contingent flew to South Texas Wednesday afternoon in preparation for two games in two days. Thanksgiving day saw the Illini going through final preparations for Kent State while taking time out to enjoy a typical Thanksgiving repast and warm sunshine. Mike Davis knows he and his teammates cannot overindulge or be distracted by the inviting surroundings.
"We can't eat too much turkey, too much ham. We may need to eat a little light, but we have to get ready for Kent State on Friday. Kent State is a great team. They were in the tournament last year. So we have to look at some tape to see what we need to do to control them. It should be a very tough game. We've got to come to play."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber has great respect for the Golden Flashes.
"Kent State had a great season last year. Actually, they've had a nice little run the last few years, having some NIT runs. They have pretty good balance, although (Al) Fisher had a huge game at St. Louis, a road win like us in an overtime game. When St. Louis beats Boston College a couple days later at home, it puts an even bigger exclamation on the Kent State win. St. Louis beats an ACC team that's been pretty good. We know we have a tough battle.
"I think they had 28 wins last year, but it is a new coach. Coach Christian did a good job there, but he left. Now, they kept it in the family and the system with Geno Ford. Now he's out to prove he can keep the program going.
"One of the toughest things at that mid level is to sustain. It's easy to get a couple years hear and there, but to sustain it over time is impressive. Creighton, SIU, Miami of Ohio have kind of done it. Kent State has done it recently. That's not an easy thing to do because you don't usually get the freshmen who can play right away. You have to develop kids.
"The pressure's not on them. They've been through these tournaments before, and I'm sure they'll play with a great deal of energy. Our example to our kids is Miami of Ohio. They not only beat us last year, they beat us at home. Kent State finished ahead of them. Obviously, you've got some pretty good basketball teams in that league."
The Golden Flashes boast a top shooter in 6'-1" guard Al Fisher. The senior is averaging 22.3 points in their three games, shooting .542 from the field. Weber is preparing his charges to close out on Fisher anywhere within his impressive shooting range.
"Fisher can get going," Weber stated. "He can score the ball. He had something like 25 of the last 26 at St. Louis and all the points in overtime.
"Fisher is a guard who creates. They do a lot of ball screening for him. They ball screen and just let him go, and you're just gonna have to stop him. He's only got a couple assists per game, but if you jam him enough he's good enough to pass it to the open man. He's looking to score whenever they need a basket.
"It's a good matchup for Chester. Now, when Chester can't guard him for the whole time or gets in foul trouble, then who else is gonna be the person who is gonna stay with him?"
Fisher is a load, but KSU has more talent than just him. 6'-4", 220 pound guard Chris Singletary averages 15.3 points per game. Julian Sullinger, middle brother of the athletic Ohio Sullingers, is a 6'-5", 235 pound banger who has averages of 10.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per game.
Starters Anthony Simpson, a 6'-8" freshman out of Rockford, Illinois, and Brandon Parks, a 6'-10", 270 behemoth, both average just under 10 points a game, and Parks also pulls down 8 boards per contest.
Weber knows Singletary well.
"The Singletary kid is from Farragut. A strong body, we've watched him through the years. I think he went to a prep school and now ended up at Kent State. He'll post up, he's powerful inside."
Chester Frazier is hungry for a couple victories in this tournament.
"This weekend will be big. Vanderbilt was big. Every game is big at this point. We've got to go get Kent State first, that's the main focus right now. And then whoever wins after that we'll take on."
One Illini who is especially happy to travel to South Padre Island is Dominique Keller. He grew up in South Texas, and he will have some family and friends to support him.
"It gets frustrating sometimes not to get to see my family and talk to my old friends. Going back home will give me a chance to see everybody, see what's going on and get that family feeling again. This is kind of a bonus because I didn't even know about it until the beginning of school."
Weber is working to get his team fired up to fight hard on two consecutive days. Win or lose against Kent State, they take on either Texas A & M or Tulsa Saturday.
"We have good competition, and I hope our kids realize that. That's our big focus."