Illini Need Hustle, Determination For Wins

The Fighting Illini basketball team has enjoyed a sparkling 14-2 record so far this season without having a superstar in its lineup. Outstanding team play and hustle have been its trademarks. This team of overchievers is inspired by a head coach who emphasizes these traits. He's even created T-shirts for his players to remind them of their need for determination and hustle.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber has his players wear two different T-shirts for warmups. One says 41+24=65, and the other says 41 Determination. Twenty-four is the number of games Weber feels the Illini need to win to reach the NCAA Tournament of 65 teams. The number 41 is the goal for the Matto Play Hard Chart. If the Illini reach 41 on average throughout the season, they will win enough games to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Weber is utilizing the Matto Chart more this year than some previous years.

"We had to have something to hang our hat on, try to get them to buy into something, "Weber explained. "We've really emphasized team defense. That is because I didn't think we had individual defenders. Beyond Chester (Frazier), I'm not sure we really have a real strong individual defender. So that was part of it. And then to tie in, if we play harder than the other teams, that gives you a chance."

A player gets points on the Matto chart by taking charges, making steals, blocking shots, diving for loose balls, creating five-second calls, and other stellar defensive plays. When the Illini score better on the chart than their opponent, they usually win. The number 41 is one more than their usual goal for a game according to Weber.

"Our goal is 20 at half. We put the leaders on the board at halftime. And at the end of the game it's brought up also. Our goal is 40. We try to emphasize after the game who are the leaders."

Actually, he discusses the team's Matto progress throughout the game.

"We try to do them even during the game, during the four minute timeouts. We'll keep reminding guys where we're at. Instead of me just saying you're not playing hard, here are the facts. Even the managers kind of get into it. They'll let us know if we just made a run on the Play Hard Chart."

Many ball players emphasize scoring over everything else. But some games, their shot isn't falling. The Matto Chart helps remind them they can contribute in other ways.

< P>"I'm trying to get through to them that even on the days you don't shoot well, you should still do the other things. It allows us to have a chance in the game."

In most cases, the players who hustle the most defensively also have good games offensively according to Weber.

"Ironically, it is usually true the guy who scores a lot of points also has a lot on the Play Hard Chart. Except for Chester. One game, Tisdale had 25 points, and he also had 12 on the Play Hard. That was his season and career high on the Play Hard. Trent Meacham the other day had a big game on offense, and he had a big game on defense."

Chester Frazier is the rare exception. Chester is the runaway team leader on the Matto Chart, sacrificing personal glory to help the team win.

"Chester has bought into being a great team guy. He's really done a nice job with our young guys. He took Stan (Simpson) under his wing, had him over for dinner. He's kind of grabbed Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. They hang out together. He's given up his ego and been kind of a coach, a leader on the team. I hope he can have a great finish to it."

Weber has not told Frazier to stop shooting. But Chester has finally learned how his defense and ability to find open teammates are just as important as scoring. He will still have his chances to score as part of the normal flow of the offense.

"I want him to make open shots if he gets them. There's a game coming up where he's gonna have some opportunities and open looks. I want him to shoot if he's open. If he steps up and makes them, it makes the defenses even more accountable. But Chester's legacy will be winning games. Being a great team guy."

Illini guard Demetri McCamey has a way to go to match Frazier on hustle and defense. It can be difficult for a high school superstar to adapt to the physical requirements of the college game. But he is improving.

"Demetri has made some strides. I don't think it's on a daily basis. That's gonna be the key to him really being successful all the time and being more consistent. He had a couple days of practice last week that were very good. Then he played better in the game Sunday.

"He's starting to figure out that how you practice is how you play. But he still wants to stay in that comfort zone, and we've got to get him out of that on a more consistent basis."

High school stars rarely have to hustle the whole game. They are accustomed to taking plays off, especially defensively. They have no idea how hard they must play at the college level, and Weber is hamstrung to teach them until they actually arrive on campus for their first semester. At least he can begin talking with them about it after they sign their scholarship tenders.

"When they're still in limbo, it's tough to say you'd better get your butt in class, you'd better play hard. You don't want to say the wrong thing because everybody else is saying how good he is.

"When they commit, you can talk about the academic part. The basketball part, you have to wait until they sign, when you really feel comfortable there's not a chance they will change. But then, 'Hey, here's the things you need to work on. How much do you want to play next year? This is gonna help you be ready.' And then encourage them with the people around them.

"I always tell them when they sign, 'This senior year you will remember the rest of your life. Your goals should be to win championships. But just as important, you've got to improve your game and be ready so when you come you can be happy.' But it's not easy because when you're the best player in high school, you can get away with stuff."

If they want to win at Illinois, they will have to give maximum effort for 40 minutes. That formula is paying off in victories, and the Illini are hungry to continue their winning ways. If they can do that, 41+24=65 will be prophetic.


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