Illinois junior forward Mike Davis enjoyed a breakout sophomore season. He scored consistently with his high extension and feathery touch, and he was the all-games Big 10 rebound leader. He is expected to continue his improvement.
However, a broken bone in his ankle set him back early this summer, and a tonsilectomy followed. Despite these issues, he appears to have regained his conditioning. Speaking after his Thursday workout, Davis is pleased with his progress.
"Surprisingly, I feel good. I ran a mile in 5:33. I shaved off 10 seconds from last year, and I pretty much ran every sprint today."
To what does he attribute his quick return to health?
"I don't know. Maybe it's my tonsils being out, I get better breathing. But I'm feeling great. I surprised myself today actually."
He had a couple bouts of tonsilitis during the past season that reduced his effectiveness. The tonsils swelled so much in his throat that breathing became difficult. He is grateful to have resolved the problem permanently.
"It was about a week before I did some running. Now, I'm back to normal. I feel I can do whatever I want now. It feels better now. I eat whatever. Food goes down better, smoother, so I can eat more."
Eating more is essential if he hopes to gain the weight and strength necessary to compete against strong opponents. Davis was hopeful of working on his outside shooting and ball handling this summer but was set back by the health problems. He appears to be making up for lost time this fall.
"Yeah, I don't have class on Tuesdays and Thursdays until 1:00pm. So I'm in here from 9:00-11:00am working on my game. I'm getting my three point shot back and my ball handling down. So maybe Dominique (Keller) and I can be interchangable between the three and four. I'm just looking forward to the season.
"I can now take some bigger guys on the wing. Against Michigan State, Minnesota, some teams with bigger guys, I can use my quickness to get around them."
As well as Davis rebounds, most of his caroms have come on the defensive end. He was honest about why his offensive rebounds have suffered in the past.
"I think it was because I was trying to save energy. I didn't want to come out of the game. I didn't want to show Coach I was tired. But it was hurting my team not getting offensive rebounds. If I can get three or four a game, I can average double figures easily. If I put my mind to it, I can do it.
"They keep stats in the pickup games, and yesterday I had 15 rebounds with four offensive rebounds. I want to pick it up even more, but having 4 rebounds helps me out for the season. We're a pretty good jump-shooting team, so I hope I'm not getting offensive rebounds because our shot is going in. If we don't miss, I don't have to attack the glass."
Dominique Keller is the only senior on the team. He and juniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Davis must share a leadership role for this team. So far, Davis believes their efforts have been successful.
"It's coming along good. D.J. Richardson was struggling a little bit with conditioning today, and Demetri picked him up. I did that too. So we can be vocal leaders and lead by example. We've got to lead the way in sprints.
"The freshmen look up to us on and off the court. We're trying to get them ready for the season because they can give some big minutes for us."
"They're all playing great. D.J. plays defense 94 feet. He'll pick Demetri up full court and harrass him. Brandon is shooting the ball excellent. He'll get to the basket. He reminds me of Dwayne Wade the way he can hang in the air and make shots. It's incredible for a freshman to do that.
"Tyler reminds me of Bill Cole, but he can also play in the box. He can shoot the ball like Bill, but he's an inside and outside threat. What I like about him is, if he has a hand in his face, he'll pass the ball. He won't try to make a move if his guy is in good defensive position on him. He's a very unselfish player, and he looks for the open guy.
"Joseph got hurt, but when he comes back his athleticism is so crazy. He rebounds, he defends, he can handle the ball. It'll help Alex (Legion) and Demetri when Joseph comes back too. He handles the ball so well. He's one of our better ball handlers, to be honest with you."
The addition of these freshmen has provided a confidence boost for the upperclassmen.
"Definitely. The guard position is very competitive in drills. Brandon and D.J. are going after Demetri and Alex. Those guys are gonna play. D.J. is a great leader. I'd say he was one of our better leaders so far. He's very vocal. He's pushing the other guys, the older guys too, to play hard. He hates losing. I'm looking forward to seeing him late in the game in crunch time."
What does Davis think is the strength of this team?
"I would say depth. We've got a lot of guys at every position. Dominique can cover for me or Tisdale. He can play the 3. He's shooting the three ball very well. Tyler Griffey can come in and play the 3,4 or 5. Rich Semrau coming in, Stan Simpson."
What things must the team focus on to improve?
"I'd say rebounding, defense and stamina. I think we can press this year. We've been working on a little bit of press."
Davis nearly reached his personal goals for last season, so his goals for 2009-2010 are of interest.
"I've been saying recently I would try to average 16 (points) and 10 (rebounds). It's a goal me and Coach talked about to do this season. I want to win. If I average 8 and 8 and we win, that's fine."
The Illini set a goal of making the NCAA Tournament last year, and they succeeded. Now, they want more.
"It was a good taste (to be in tourney), but it was a bad taste we lost in the first round. We want to get further than that. We thought last year we should get further than that. So this year, we have to pick it up and make it to the second weekend."
What does the 6'-9", 210 pounder think about Game Day coming to campus in February?
"That's awesome. I was surprised, actually. They're showing us a lot of respect to come here for Game Day. It'll be very exciting, very thrilling. The Orange Krush will be ready for it. It's a special day."
Krush membership has been booming this year. Davis can tell from the buzz on campus that games will be well attended.
"I think we'll have a lot of sellouts this year. The students are ready for it. They talk to me all the time in class, asking how the team is gonna be and all that. So they're very into it. I can't wait. Everybody's excited, just like we are.
"I tell them everybody's working hard, and we want to win. These guys don't want to lose, and neither do I. It's my junior season, and I've got to lead by example, along with Demetri and Tisdale."
The schedule has been designed to prepare the Illini for every eventuality. It won't be easy.
"We have a tough schedule coming up, and we've got to get these guys ready. Our nonconference is tough, as well as the Big 10. Every game will be tough. No cakewalks really. We've got to be mentally tough, but we're ready for it."