Illini Open Season At Home vs. SIU-E Friday

Excitement is building for the 2009-2010 basketball season. The Big 10 may be the dominant conference in the nation this year, and the Fighting Illini should be in the thick of the league race. A blend of experienced upperclassmen and four talented rookies gives Illini Nation much to anticipate. SIU-Edwardsville invades the Assembly Hall Friday.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber is looking forward to the season.

"We're excited. Our season kicks off this week. I think it is a big stretch for us. We have a chance for a couple weeks, four games in the mix. We have to make progress."

The schedule toughens quickly. Weber and his staff need to mold talent into improved play to win these early games.

"Now, it's three days and a game, three days and a game, a day off, three days and a game. So it's a little bit of a routine here over this next two weeks We hope to continue to make some improvement so we're ready for a major stretch starting Thanksgiving with the Vegas tournament, then Clemson, Boise State and Vanderbilt."

The Illini won their two exhibitions easily and showed plenty of offensive firepower. But there are many unanswered questions.

"You say we've got a lot of guys back. We'll we do, but they're all changing their roles. And then the new guys are a major part of it. It's gonna be a slow process. I hope it comes quicker than I anticipate. But it might take longer to figure it all out.

"I don't know who will start yet. I think we know 3 to 4 of the guys, but that fifth guy and who rotates in. All of that stuff. I know you've got to keep guys happy, but at the same time you have to keep me happy. That's just as important, and they do that by producing and having a great attitude."

Illini fans are thrilled with freshmen D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and Tyler Griffey. Weber sees a probable role for all four once Bertrand's knee surgery is completely healed. But the upperclassmen must lead the way.

"The freshmen have obviously performed well. If you look at the stats from our two exhibition games, they're two of our three leading scorers. When the game got tight Sunday (Quincy University), both D.J. and Brandon really stepped up and made plays. So that's a very positive thing.

"But since the beginning of the year, the message I've tried out is, if we have to depend on the freshmen to carry us, it's gonna make the season a lot more difficult than it should be. We need the juniors, the upperclassmen to be consistent and be our leaders. They have to take over the reins and take our team. This will be an important couple weeks coming up for us.

"If the upperclassmen play well, there won't be the demands and pressures on the young kids. I think that's an important part. Those guys are very confident. We're gonna go through some growing pains like every team does. The sooner they can accept what they are in their roles, the better team we're gonna be, and the better we'll be early."

Weber is still looking for leaders. Last year, Chester Frazier took on that role and helped the team overachieve. No one has a similar personality or drive on this team, and that is a concern.

"I think Mike Tisdale is trying. I think his biggest thing is, when it goes bad will he still be a leader? When he's not making shots, when he gets knocked down, will he still come in the huddle and say things? That's probably the key for Demetri and all our upperclassmen.

"I think Dominique (Keller) is trying to figure out what he is. He's trying to be positive with the guys, but he's having his own dilemma. Mentally he wants to be a three, but probably his strength is his athleticism, running and getting to the basket, his unorthodox style. I hope we can figure it out sooner than later."

Other concerns include ball handling, defense and rebounding. Richardson may become a defensive stopper on the perimeter, but the inside players have to hold their own against stronger foes. And the freshmen are still learning all the nuances of team defense.

Rebounding will be a concern all season since both Mike Davis and Tisdale are slender and get pushed around inside. Davis realizes the work still needed for defense and rebounding.

"We need to get a lot better on defense, it's a little suspect. And me, Mike and Dominique can do a lot better job boxing out. We're still not boxing out."

Tisdale had an important tip power dunk against Quincy, a sign he is becoming more aggressive around the hoop. He will need more of that in the games to come, and he knows it. He is looking forward to the season.

"I'm pretty excited. It will be the first real game, the first test that will go on the record."

Richardson is a likely starter. He has been waiting for this moment for a long time.

"Yeah, I'm excited. I can't wait to get the regular season started. All I wanted my whole life was to play college ball. Friday is my first day, so I'm ready. I'm just gonna play the role Coach gives me. I'm gonna do whatever it takes for our team to win. That's what I'm here for."

SIU-Edwardsville is not expected to pose a major challenge for the Illini Friday evening. Their leading returning scorer is Mt. Zion sophomore Mark Yelovich, a 6'-6" forward. Senior guard Aamir McCleary was close to double figures last year. Serbian center Mikola Bundalo is a 6'-10" junior. Guard Cody Rincker played with Bubba Chisholm at Lincoln Land JC.

Weber explains why the Cougars are expected to struggle this year.

"Obviously, just making the transition from Division 2 to Division 1 is not easy. Lennox Forrester their coach I've known at Evansville and Bradley as an assistant. Great person, great guy. Not an easy job for him. They were a very respectable Division 2 program, and now to make that jump is tough.

"He lost a few key guys. He has some young guys trying to figure the whole thing out. Obviously, we're worried about every game, and Quincy the other day was making a push at us. Anything can happen on a given day."

Weber is more concerned about his Illini than SIU-E.

"The most important thing for us is ourself, getting better. We've got to make some strides here and have some consistency over the next couple weeks to get into the tough part of our nonconference schedule."

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