Illinois basketball players Alex Legion and Dominique Keller joined assistant coach Sean Harrington on a trip to China to play basketball. They spoke with the media on their return. Harrington felt the experience was well worth the effort.
"It was a great experience. It's hard to go into a situation where you don't know what to expect. It was nice that Coach (Wayne) McClain and Jerrance (Howard) had been there, and Demetri (McCamey) and Mike Davis going last year. So they kind of gave us a heads up on a few things you wouldn't be aware of.
"You see stuff on TV, and that's all you have to go by. It was very different from what we are used to in our everyday lives. I was really glad we had the chance to go."
The trip gave Legion and Keller a chance to improve on weaknesses in their games. Harrington felt Legion showed definite improvement over his troubled college season.
"Alex did well. For all our guys on the trip, it was really hard the first few days to get our bodies used to the time change. I thought Alex shot it pretty well. He did a little better job of guarding a few games, but still he needs to guard a little better. He knows that.
"He had 15 rebounds one day, and that was good to see. He was pretty aggressive going to the glass. I even think he had 6-7 assists in the game. That was a positive. He played well overall. I think he still sees some things he needs to improve.
"Alex is known for shooting and scoring, and I think he can do that for us. He has a good shot. I think he probably lacked a little confidence this past year. It's hard for someone to come in during the middle of the season and just start playing. He didn't get an exhibition game. He didn't get a couple nonconference games. He was thrown right in the fire with Missouri and Purdue on the road.
"I think when he goes through the summer, and then he's gonna get a whole preseason, I think he can be a great scorer for us. I think he needs to do a few other things for us, but scoring the basketball is something he can do for us."
Legion gave his own view of his play during the trip.
"As a confidence booster, I think I shot a pretty decent percentage. I think it was like 42% and 38% from three. So after struggling last year, this will be a great confidence booster for me. Playing defense against some of those semi-pro guys over there helped me see where I'm at. I'm looking forward to the season.
"Before I went, I was real out of shape. After we stopped workouts, I kind of chilled out for awhile. So going over there playing for two weeks got me back into shape. Shooting around this morning, I could feel my wind coming back. I'm kind of glad I actually did it."
Keller praised Legion's play.
"Alex was pretty good the first couple games. Until he got sick, he was lighting it up. I think he shot about 75% from three. So it was a coming out party for him. He was just knocking down everything. It was great to see until he got sick. So I think he did a lot better over there."
Harrington felt Keller also benefitted from the experience.
"Dominique did good. He was a little more up and down. He came in with some real big numbers one game, but he was down a little bit the next. His scoring numbers looked pretty good. He shot the ball decent from three. I think his three point percentage was double his free throw percentage, so we got over him a little bit on that. He needs to work on the free throws a little bit."
Keller spoke along similar lines.
"I played good the first four games, but I didn't rebound a lot. In the first game, I had 22 points but just 6 rebounds, so Coach (Weber) texted me to rebound. The next two games I had like 10 and 19. I played good. I just worked a lot on my weaknesses, like my left hand, rebounding, running the floor.
"They had a lot of 7 footers. When they say 7'-0, they're 7'-0". Each team had like three of them, and they kept rotating them at us. Toward the end of the trip, we started losing a couple games because they were rotating 11-12 guys, and we only had 8. Paul Carter from Minnesota kept getting in foul trouble, so I was playing 30 minutes like 5 games straight. It was kind of hard. We lost our legs toward the end.
Harrington felt the officiating hurt Keller throughout the trip.
"For him, it was a little hard defensively. The officiating was quite different than what we're used to in the Big 10. So he got into some foul trouble a few games. A lot of ticky-tack fouls down on the block, which were not necessarily his fault. So that was a little hard for him at times. Overall, he played pretty well."
Keller had a humorous reaction to a discussion of the officiating.
"The game over there is a lot different. They don't call fouls when you go up strong. They call a lot of flops and screams. So toward the end of the trip, we were flopping and screaming. It gave us a lot of calls."
Legion expanded on the officiating situation.
"The referees aren't as good as our great referees. It was kind of pointless after awhile to argue. I now have a great appreciation for the referees here. Obviously, we weren't the favorites with the refs. The Chinese teams were trying to beat us. I think they do (understand English). I think they tried to fake us out a little bit. They would just smile but then call it whatever."
It was tiring just listening to Keller describe a typical day on the trip.
"The schedule was brutal. We got the first day off. But then we played 6 games in 6 days. And I know me and Alex played 30-35 minutes in each of those games.
"We'd wake up at 5:00 in the morning, eat breakfast at 6:00am, pack up and be out of the hotel by 7:00am. Then every day was a 2-3 hour flight, followed by a 2-3 hour bus ride, followed by a one hour shootaround. We'd get to rest about 4:00pm to 6:00pm.
"The game would start at 7:30pm. They would have a bunch of plays and sword fights before the games, so the game wouldn't actually start until around 8:30pm. The game would be about two hours, and we'd sign autographs until about 11:00pm. By the time we'd eat, we'd get back about 12:30-1:00am.
"So we'd get about 5 hours rest and then get up and go again for six straight days. They then gave us two days off, and that's when everybody started getting sick because we were used to traveling and playing. Once we gave our bodies a chance to rest, they couldn't handle it. So the last two games we skipped shootaround and just took it easy. It was worse than an NBA schedule."
There were no statistics available for one game, but Legion averaged 17.1 points for the other 7 games. He also averaged 7.3 rebounds a game. Keller scored at a 12.7 point clip and averaged 5.9 rebounds, although his 19 rebound effort was excluded from the statistics. Legion shot .422 overall and .378 from three, and Keller shot .407. The team ended up with an acceptable record according to Harrington.
"We were 4-3-1. Jerrance had a tie last year as well when he was over there. They just don't want to play overtime. They just called the game, and the fans kind of booed. That was interesting."
Harrington discussed the talent level of the competition.
"We played five Chinese teams, and their style is just so different than we're used to playing. It's more European, a lot of shooters, a lot of motion sets. But they just play a little bit different style.
"We played the Jordanian National Team, and that was a little more what we're used to seeing. Their talent was similar, maybe a little better than ours. But they'd been playing together for years. That made them even better than what we were used to.
"We had 8 guys who had never played ball together other than Alex and Dom being on the same team and our two Northern Iowa guys being on the same team. So that was a good test for us. We ended up playing them three times."
Legion respected the talent level.
"I would compare it to like Division II or a low high major. It was quality competition. They could really shoot over there, so we had to adjust. We did a lot of driving, but they didn't. They're not really aggressive. On the defensive end, they foul a lot more and let you play. I think it will get us ready for the Big 10 because it is a lot physical. I kind of enjoyed it a little bit.
"The Chinese guys were really big. We were actually a small team over there. The first team we played, the shortest player was 6'-6". They were big. They had a high school MVP who was pretty good."
They were playing against teams that had worked together for years, but Legion felt he and his teammates adjusted quickly to become unified.
"It was kind of like All-America camp. You show up and kind of just mesh somehow. Dominique and I played against A.J. Slaughter from Western Kentucky and Paul Carter from Minnesota. So we share that bond of respect for each other's game. We were able to share the ball. And it didn't hurt that we had a coach from the staff there to put you and your teammate Dom in the game. It was a good experience."
Keller was asked about Harrington as a head coach.
"Sean was cool over there. I know he got a lot of the players' respect. When they first saw him, they asked a lot of questions about him. We just told them he was a good guy who liked basketball.
"I think he grew as a coach. I think he found it was not as easy as it seems. A lot of people like myself joke about Coach Weber all the time, but it's hard to coach a team with a lot of talent and get everybody shots. He got it figured out with 8 players who all wanted to shoot a way to keep everybody happy. I guess he did because everybody was happy.
"I think it was a good experience for him as well. He had the same experiences as us, but he probably had a harder time because he had to coach everybody and tell them what to do. For the most part, he got everybody's attention, and everybody listened."
Keller summed up the experience as an opportunity for personal growth."I think this prepared me better for my senior year. Just to get a different outlook on things, getting to play alot more minutes, going against a lot more different types of players, getting a chance to experience new situations. It gave me a new outlook on the game."