Presbyterian College coach Gregg Nibert brings a young and undersized quintet to the Assembly Hall Saturday evening. They have lost to Furman and future Illini opponent Clemson and are decided underdogs.
The most experienced player for the Blue Hose is redshirt junior Walt Allen, a 6'-5", 220 pound former Kentucky "Mr. Basketball." Redshirt freshman Jake Troyli (6'-9", 185) had 15 points and 8 boards against Furman, and he is the only player with double figure points in both games.
Freshman guard Zach Faircloth (6'-2", 175) had a double-double against Furman. Freshman point guard Khalid Mutakabbir (6'-4", 190) added 9 points, 6 rebounds and 5 assists in that game. Wing Chase Holmes (6'-4", 205) grabbed 8 boards against Clemson and shares the lead on the team for made three pointers.
An unusual statistic for the South Carolina team is its shooting percentages. The three point shooting is better than overall, 41.9% to 41.2%. The Illini hope to hold them to less than that Tuesday. However, Illinois coach Bruce Weber says their zone defense will be a challenge.
"We're gonna face a Presbyterian team that plays basically 40 minutes of zone. They'll play the old North Carolina tip zone, the 1-3-1 into the 2-3. They'll play a little 3-2 at times. It looks like we won't see much man-to-man.
"So it's good for us to deal with that situation. It will prepare us for certain teams in the league. Hopefully, we can continue the energy we've portrayed so far."
The Illini are working more on their own development at this point. Overall, Weber was encouraged by his team's performance against Northern Illinois.
"Watching the Northern film, we felt pretty good about the game. I thought the first 17 minutes we were pretty good. We just kind of died in the last three minutes. I thought it was a good situation for us to have some failure, to struggle, and then we responded. Now, we've got to continue to make improvement."
Conditioning is always a problem early in the season.
"There's practice conditioning, and then there's game conditioning. It takes awhile for the guys to get into game shape. As we play better competition and go away from home, you also have to deal with the adrenalin part of it."
The Illini are playing a more uptempo style this year, and they are trying to work three freshmen into the lineup. They all need to continue their conditioning efforts to play their best ball.
"You've got to play both ends, you've got to guard people, and we're running. Hopefully, all our guys will continue to get in better game shape. They've got to push themselves in practice with conditioning, so if they want to play the extra 4-5 minutes, they're gonna have to be in excellent shape."
The Presbyterian game will mark the return of junior point guard Jeff Jordan. Having quit and then rejoined the team prior to the Orange and Blue game, he was ordered to miss the first two games by the NCAA for playing unsanctioned games while not on the team. He will need to get in better condition to be a major factor according to Weber.
"He really pushes the basketball well. His conditioning hurts him in terms of length of time (he plays). On the defensive end, he doesn't have the stamina to go for a long period of time. We've got to just let him keep working at it.
"We'll use him in short spurts as a backup to Demetri (McCamey) and once in awhile move Demetri to the wing. It's a long season, and a lot of things can happen. We just have to let him work in a little bit at a time.
"Hopefully, he gives us a little bit of depth. He gives us maturity. I think his attitude has been great. Now he has to earn our trust back and get him back involved with the team."
Freshman guard Brandon Paul has led the team in scoring the first two games. He got off to a quick start against Northern Illinois but shot too many threes to suit Weber.
"He had a problem with shot selection last year also. He has a tendency to give in and just shoot threes. We're hoping he can get through that and get to the basket. He has our most free throw attempts in our two exhibition games and 2 regular games, so that's positive. But I think he can even get more.
"And he has a really nice pull up jumper. His defense has been a positive. He's been able to deal with some athletic and versatile guys."
Paul agrees he will need to diversify his game, especially when teams defend him on the perimeter.
"If I make my first couple threes, I keep shooting them. But if I start missing, then I definitely need to take it to the basket more."
Paul is confident of his game and sets high goals. But he admits to some surprise at his hot start.
"I knew I could perform well, but at the same time I didn't know I would do this well. It's only been a couple of games, and I'm not playing that great. I just need to keep getting better and play hard when the big games come. My goals include being Big 10 Freshman Of The Year and win the Big 10 for the team."
Weber is also pleased with freshman guard D.J. Richardson. D.J.'s hyperextended elbow is improving, but it still affects his shooting. Richardson's sudden concerns about ball handling should be temporary.
"He's handled the ball his whole life," Weber reminds. "Now he's worried about pressure. It's good for him to deal with these situations, to deal with some failure and fight through some stuff. Hopefully by next week he'll get the sleeve off his elbow."
Junior point guard McCamey is excited about the potential of this team.
"The difference from last year is everyone is geeked up to play. Everybody's playing hard. It's not about getting points or assists, everybody wants to win. Last game, we had 54 points on the MATTO, and Coach said that was the best in history.
"We've got a lot of shooters. We can spread the floor, (Mike) Tisdale is banging in the post, Mike Davis is scoring and rebounding as well.
"Now you've got to guard five people. That's real difficult once you get guys spread and we play penetrate and dish, knowing you've got guys who can make shots night in and night out. So it's gonna be real good to see how we compete with other teams around the country."
Davis shares McCamey's optimism about the offense, but he also knows the importance of defense.
"Last year we got stagnant at times. But now we have a lot of options who can score. We've still got to get stops. In the Big 10, people play very good defense. The top teams like Michigan State play great defense. So we've got to find a way to get stops also."
Versatile senior Dominique Keller says he has accepted his sixth man role. He also likes talking about the offense's potential.
"We're a lot more explosive offensively than last year. Last year we struggled to score at times. We're not as good defensively as we were last year, but what we lack on defense we do on offense. We will continue to work on it and make adjustments."
Keller also praises the work of freshmen Paul, Richardson and Tyler Griffey.
"Just pure energy. They come in and hit some shots, D.J. can pressure people 40 feet, Brandon is real athletic, Tyler comes in and gives us a boost and rebounds real well. We have ability at every position."
The Illini hope to build on their games against Presbyterian College.