Detroit Mercy Visits Assembly Hall

The Fighting Illini basketball team returns to action tonight as it hosts the Detroit Mercy Titans at the Assembly Hall. With first semester final exams over and sophomore Alex Legion hopefully seeing his first playing time, the Illini hope to have a fun evening. Of course, Detroit may have something to say about that.

Detroit Mercy is coached by Ray McCallum, who was on Kelvin Sampson's Indiana staff last year. Many Illinois fans still hold a grudge against that staff for the way they recruited Eric Gordon out from under them. But Bruce Weber has no animosity for McCallum.

"I don't have any (animosity). That's over, that's done with. We've just got to move on with a new chapter in our life."

Weber has known McCallum for many years.

"I've known Ray for a long time. He was at Ball State. I interviewed there when he did one time, and he got the job. He was at Houston. Being in Indiana all that time, he's a legend in Muncie as a player. And he had a tremendous career at Ball State. He was one of the best little guys in the country when he did play. And we've always had a good relationship with him."

Some Illinois fans question Weber's decision to schedule McCallum's team. But Weber explains that he scheduled the game before the coaching change at Detroit.

"The coach who was there before was Perry Watson, who I've known for probably 25 years or more. A very successful program there. He ran into some health issues and decided to retire. Ray has taken over, and I'm sure he'll do a good job. He has lots of connections in the Midwest, and I'm sure the program will be successful there."

The Titans are 3-6 on the season, having beaten Aquinas 58-48 in their last outing. And 6'-7" star Xavier Keeling may not play due to injury. He was leading the team in both scoring and rebounding.

However, this may not be an easy game for Illinois. It is impossible to judge how a team will play after 10 days off for finals. Sometimes, they are reenergized, and sometimes they are bogged down with visions of all-nighters still muddying their thoughts.

And there may be some problems as the Illini incorporate a new player into their game plan. If everything works out properly, sophomore Kentucky transfer Alex Legion will see his first Illini action. A Parade All-American, Legion is expected to add a deft shooting touch to the mix, and his introduction is eagerly anticipated.

However, Legion will face great pressure fitting in, and his teammates may try too hard to get him the ball for open shots. This preoccupation on one person may hinder team chemistry, the team's best asset. Fans will need patience with Legion as he gets over the rust and nerves. And the team needs to treat the game the same as any other and not change their methods.

One other factor is that Detroit is far more game ready at this point. They have been on the court more recently, so their bodies and minds are conditioned for another game. Bruce Weber admits to some concern as he discusses the Titans.

"They've had two games this week since we've played. They'll be much more game ready. So that's the first worry.

"Their big guy Xavier Keeling has not played the last couple games. He's their leading scorer, and somebody said he's been in a boot. We haven't received confirmation on that. Depending on if he plays, they have good balance, good mix of defenses. They'll press a little bit, they'll go man, they'll play some zone. So it'll be a game we have to come ready to play."

Juniors Thomas Kennedy (6'-7", 200), Woody Payne (5-11", 160) and Michael Harrington (6'-8", 230) made up for Keeling's absence against Aquinas. Kennedy scored a game-high 17 points, Payne scored 14 while garnering 6 rebounds and handing out 7 assists, and Rich Central product Harrington grabbed 12 boards.

Other starters for Detroit include Donavan Foster, a 5'-11" freshman from Chicago Curie and 6'-9", 205 pound senior Chris Hayes, a graduate of Chicago Mt. Carmel. Top Titans subs include sophomore Eugene Blue (6'-8", 255), 7'-3", 275 junior Jason Bennett, and junior Nemanja Jokic. Bennett received some recruiting attention from Illinois during his high school days in Jacksonville, Florida, before signing to play with Bob Huggins at Kansas State and later transferring.


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