Illini Take On Utah Utes In Las Vegas Tourney

The Fighting Illini take their 4-0 record on the road for the first time, playing games in the Las Vegas Holiday Tournament Friday and Saturday. If they defeat Utah, they will play the winner of the Oklahoma State/Bradley contest for the championship. It will be an opportunity for the Illini to see where they stand against stiffer competition.

Illinois took a charter flight to Las Vegas Wednesday morning. After spending Thanksgiving together on Thursday, they will play Friday night against the Utah Utes. The Utes are 2-2 on the young season, defeating Utah State and Southern while losing to Idaho and Seattle.

Coach Bruce Weber talks about the Utes and their head coach.

"Jim Boylen is the coach. He assisted a couple different times at Michigan State. I believe he was with Jud (Heathcote) early, a grad assistant/video guy. Michigan State was ahead of the curve with all the video equipment and doing preparation and stuff. So he was able to go into the NBA with the Rockets for quite awhile with Rudy Tomjanovich.

"Then he was with the Bucks before coming back as Tom Izzo's assistant a few years ago. He was able to land the job at Utah. Last year, they were in the NCAA. They did lose quite a few players, a handful of seniors. So they're kind of new, starting over a little bit this season.

"They have very good size, 7'-3", 6'-11", 7'-0." They'll shoot it pretty quick from three, and at the same time they can go inside to the kid (David) Foster (7'-3", 255). He's shooting 80% at this point.

"(Kim) Tilley (6'-11", 230) is a very athletic forward, tip dunks, can move with the basketball. I believe he's from France and plays that typical European forward play where he uses versatility on the court.

"I think the one returning starter is (Carlon) Brown (6'-5", 205). He's their leading scorer right now and scores in a lot of different ways. He has some quickness, can get to the basket, can create his own shot and will shoot some threes.

"They're playing quite a few guys early. I'm sure they probably didn't feel very good about losing last night, but they're learning and have a lot of guys trying to figure it out. It will be a good test for both of us."

Brown is averaging 16.6 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. Freshman guard Marshall Henderson (6'-2", 275) is averaging 11.3, while backup center Jason Washburn (7'-0", 225) scores 10.5 a clip while grabbing 4 rebounds a game. Tillie checks in at 9.3 points and 6.5 rebounds. Senior guard Luca Drca (6'-5", 205) averages 6 assists and 8.5 points a game. Foster has 13 blocks so far. Jordan Cyphers, Jace Tavita and Matt Read all see significant minutes.

This trip will be a new experience for Illini freshmen D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey. How they respond to the uniqueness of the week will be important.

"This is a whole new situation we're in," Weber reminds. "We're on break, they have free time. Are you smart? Do you sleep for 14 hours and then come to practice groggy, not emotionally ready? Do you get your hours backwards by staying up late and then sleep late in the day? That's maturity, and we talked to them about it.

"This is just a week in Vegas, but then at Christmas it's the same thing. That takes some maturity and discipline. All our freshmen are good kids, but they're still young. We'll see how they deal with this these next 8 days with three games at neutral sites, road sites. It's a little bit of an NBA schedule and NBA lifestyle that they have to adjust to."

Now that the Illini are facing teams with bigger players, Mike Tisdale's role will expand over the early games. He scored 12 points and asserted himself better against Wofford, but he was less involved in the other three games. Weber has been on him to be more assertive.

"Through the first three games, stat-wise he didn't play up to what he expects or what we expect. Some of it's the tempo of the game, some of it's playing against teams that have smaller players.

"I got after him the last couple days. He can't just give in and say he's playing smaller teams and won't get as involved as much. He's got to find ways and not just give in. We need him to be successful. He's got to continue to push himself and not be satisfied. He's got to continue to rise up. He's had a slow start, but now he's got to step up and make a difference for us."

Tisdale is looking forward to seeing how the Illini stack up against good competition. He is taking the trip seriously.

"It teaches us to play on the road. It's not like a home game; everybody's against us. It helps us learn a little more what we're about.

"We're gonna treat it like a business trip. Like any away game, we're gonna go to the hotel, eat, maybe go to a show with the team. If we win on Saturday night, we'll get to see what's up. But we're there to play basketball."

Illinois junior Mike Davis is looking forward to two games in two nights.

"It's always good to get away sometimes. It could be a good road test because Utah will have a lot of fans out there too. We're excited to go out there and have fun."

Richardson is aware how important each possession can be in tough contests.

"We're looking forward to the competition where it's gonna come down to a difference of 1-2 or 4-5 points. Being patient and shot selection is key. The next few games, we'll be playing against teams with great team skills, great coaches and a good system."

Richardson spent a year in Vegas with the Findlay Prep team, so he should feel at home. Paul played there twice with AAU teams. He is not overwhelmed by his first road trip.

"It should be real exciting. We just want to come out and play as hard as we do at home."

Weber is aware of all the distractions for nonfocused basketball players in Las Vegas. But he will allow them an opportunity to walk around Wednesday evening before beginning specific preparations for Utah.

"I want them to enjoy trips. I'm not gonna lock them into the hotel. We have some pretty good kids with smarts. But our #1 goal is to win the tournament."

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