Junior point guard Demetri McCamey led the Illini on the court and in the stat sheet. He showed his improved sense of responsibility and attention to detail. And he provided the energy and focus the younger players needed. Illinois coach Bruce Weber was pleased with his progress.
"Demetri definitely was a difference maker because he took care of the ball and pushed it."
McCamey also showed fans improved quickness, stamina and leaping ability, the result of an intense off-season workout regimen.
"I just pushed it, and that gave us easy baskets in transition," McCamey explained. "That's something we didn't do a lot last year is get a lot of transition buckets and get to the free throw line. I think we accomplished that.
"I've got my high school bounce back. I can finish now above the rim without the weight on me."
The Illini had 19 turnovers in the game, 15 in the first half. Weber will make it a point of emphasis, but he was not totally surprised.
"I think a little sloppy would be an understatement the first half. Some of it we were rotating a lot of guys. To their credit, they were very quick, very aggressive. I thought they were physical and did not back down."
Despite the turnovers, McCamey was happy with the first effort.
"It was pretty good. You could tell we have talent. We just need practice right now. These guys can get better every day. You come with intensity.
"The season has just started, so you can't look at turnovers. The only thing you can look at is the energy and the good things. We can correct the turnovers, that comes with practice."
The Illini got off to a quick 9-0 start before Missouri Southern scored its first point on a free throw. The Illini continued the onslaught until it was 19-1. The Lions roared back to make a game of it at 31-24 before the UI responded with an 18-4 run to finish the half with a 21 point lead. The second half was more of the same.
For the game, McCamey scored 16 points on 5-8 from the field and 5-6 free throws. He dished out 7 assists and had three steals. Only his three turnovers marred his excellent effort. Freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul added 14 and 13 points respectively, while Dominique Keller scored 12 and Mike Davis 10.
The Illini shot 52.4% from the field, with many buckets layups. They were not as good from the three point line, 20% accuracy showing Weber the need for better shot selection. For the most part, Illinois played hard on defense, holding MSSU to a paltry 34.9% shooting from the field. They even toyed with full court pressure and a zone briefly.
Paul showed a hunger to drive the hoop, allowing him to make acrobatic layins and get to the free throw line 10 times. Richardson also had a couple drives for layins and added four free throws. Freshmen Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey each added 6 points.
Weber liked what the freshmen provided in the game.
"The first half they struggled a little bit, combined nerves and their quickness. None of them are natural point guards. I think we're gonna have to use some of them handling the ball. So it's a good experience.
"Brandon Paul went to the hoop. He has some natural instincts. We talk about getting to the free throw line, he got there ten. That's a good thing for us. He's got to learn a little bit about shot selection.
"D.J. struggled early, but then he picked it up. The turnovers were the thing that bothered him early, but I think some of that was nerves and their quickness. Joseph Bertrand is in and out of practice, but I thought he did all right. He made some nice plays. And then Tyler Griffey's been pretty solid for us. He listens and learns. I think he has a chance to be a pretty good player down the road. So a good first taste for those guys."
Last season, Illini guards lacked firepower so they found ways of setting up big men Davis and Mike Tisdale for short jumpers. This year, McCamey, Richardson, Paul and Alex Legion all can catch fire offensively, so they are looking for their shot more. This may mean fewer shots for the big men.
Tisdale didn't score until hitting a free throw with a little over ten minutes to play and finished with just three points on 1-6 shooting. He did however lead the team with 9 rebounds including three off the offensive glass. Weber said he benefits from playing against bigger people, and MSSU played small much of the time.
Two players failed to see the floor. Jeff Jordan missed all of summer and fall workouts, so Weber decided a condition of his return would include sitting out the first game while he gets back into game shape.
And Weber said Stan Simpson needs to take care of his classroom responsibilities. If he improves in that regard, he may see time Sunday against Quincy in the final tuneup for the 2009-10 season.
Exhibition games shine a light on problem areas, but they also provide an introduction for the fans. Overall, the crowd of 14,454 appeared to go home happy.