The Illinois basketball team got together Sunday for their first pickup games of the summer. With everyone beginning summer school the next day, it was a good time to integrate the new freshmen with the holdovers from a 24-10 team. Mike Tisdale was impressed with D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey.
"They're pretty good. I think they're real skilled. With some more development, they'll be ready to go."
The freshmen are hungry, and it was noticeable the first day.
"They brought the competition back," Tisdale explains. "It was one of the best pickup games we've had since last season. With that competition coming in, people worry about losing spots. People play harder, so that was good."
As a junior, Tisdale is more confident of his abilities. But the freshmen are definitely keeping him from relaxing.
"You can never feel at ease with these new guys coming in. Even though we have only one big man coming in, everyone still has to work and be competitive in practice. It's better knowing there's nothing set. That way, I have to work harder, not take any days off."
That one big man is Griffey. Tisdale expects him to be a contributor.
"He's real athletic and really skilled and can shoot. He reminds me of a European player. If he works hard and rebounds, he'll be all right."
Illini coach Bruce Weber talked about all the changes occurring in the lives of the newcomers. It will no doubt take them awhile to adapt to college responsibilities.
"The freshmen had to go through orientation last week. In a way, it's kind of a dress rehearsal for the school year. You do have a couple classes, so it's not a full schedule. They can get used to that. Getting used to the weights, getting used to the team's comaraderie is a big part of the summer.
"And then you hope they get in the gym and play with each other. So it's 6-7 weeks of dress rehearsal for what's gonna happen during the school year.
"How they react to it, how they respond to all the different aspects of going away to college, that's what I'm talking to them about. The ups and downs, communicating with us. We're here to help them get through this. Hopefully, when they come back to school they'll be acclimated, and it will be much easier."
Weber has been preparing his returnees to take the youngsters under their wings and guide them through the process. They did not have that advantage when they were freshmen, so Weber hopes they will want the new freshmen to start off on the right foot.
"When our 7 upperclassmen came in, I'm not sure we did a great job of reaching out and bringing everybody together. The players didn't do it for different reasons. I'm reminding these guys that when you were freshmen, guys kind of left you out. And now, reach down to this next group. Bring them in, make them understand how hard we have to work, being on time, all those things that are important.
"But we've also told the freshmen, if the seniors don't do it, then go by it. You create your own time table, your own style, you're own tempo. Don't just wait for them. So we've got to challenge both of them.
"Ideally, the older guys do what they're supposed to and become good leaders, work with the younger guys, bring them in and help them through the good times and the bad times. And that will make us a better team. If not, competition pushes everybody, and I hope they'll get after it right away."
Weber is hoping Tisdale can take a leadership role with this team, so having him depart for the national team tryouts works against that, at least for awhile. But that may be a blessing in disguise as well.
"The advantages of the extra games, the extra experiences outweigh not being here. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. All my experiences with USA basketball have been the best memories of basketball I have probably.
"I hope he makes it, but now it challenges Demetri or the other guys to become a little more vocal and lead. He'll still be back by the first week of July (at the latest), so they'll have part of the summer anyway."