Flying high after four impressive home wins, Illinois traveled to Las Vegas expecting to come home with a tourney championship. Instead, it returned with its confidence shattered and season in doubt. Coach Bruce Weber knows there is much work ahead.
"Obviously, we didn't feel real good about this weekend. First, our freshmen are freshmen, and they have a lot of growing up to do. It probably came too easily for them early, and now they probably went the other way and lost some confidence.
"We've got to help them get back. They're very good players, but they have to realize it's not gonna come easy. It's actually hard to get open, to get a shot. You're gonna have different defensive concepts. It's part of their learning process.
"All along, I've been cautiously optimistic. The things I was worried about came out in the two games this weekend. Leadership is important. Leadership down the stretch, go-to guys, somebody making plays. But they all can be correctable.
"If you compare last year's South Padre Island Tournament to this year, almost identical games. But those games we find a way to win. This time we didn't. That's why Chester (Frasier), a senior leader who made plays, was important."
Leadership was lacking. Everyone wanted someone else to show the way. No one stepped up in crunch time. Now, they go from the frying pan to the fire as Clemson may be their toughest nonconference opponent. The Tigers nipped the Illini in the Assembly Hall last year and figure to be better at home despite losing a couple starters.
"It does not get any easier," Weber understates. "We have a very difficult opponent in Clemson, who plays an unorthodox style. Coach (Oliver) Purnell has done a great job down there to find a niche in a very tough conference. He's done it with some pressing and trapping, scramble kind of defenses.
"They are just getting back from a trip to the West Coast. So both of us are a little weary from travel. They found a way to nip us last year here at Assembly Hall, and now we've got to see if we can return the favor down at their place."
Clemson is 6-1, losing to Texas A & M but defeating Butler in the 76 Classic last weekend. They have five players averaging between 9.4 and 13.9 points per game. They shoot 48.3% from the field, have a 5.3 rebound margin and a 6.3 advantage in turnover margin. They aren't extremely tall, but all their players run and defend.
The dynamic Trevor Booker leads the Tigers in both scoring and rebounding. The 6'-7", 240 pounder can leap out of the gym and power by people. Weber remembers Booker gave the Illini fits last year.
"Booker is a very good player. He's an in-between guy. He's 6'-7" and can go inside and outside. He's athletic, quick, has great balance. It was a tough matchup last year, it will be a tough matchup this year."
Junior forward Mike Davis knows Booker will be a difficult matchup for him.
"We're gonna have to post trap him. He's a big guy, one of the best post guys in the country, a double-double guy. I think if we can contain him, keep him off the boards, we've got a good shot to win."
Clemson also boasts point guard Demontez Stitt (6'-2", 175), the junior who was instrumental in their win in the Assembly Hall with his penetrations late in the game. He is averaging 9.4 points a game and is the team's leading assist man. Sophomore Tanner Smith (6'-5", 220) and senior David Potter (6'-6", 215) both average double figures.
Sophomore Andre Young (5'-9", 170) starts, and so usually does junior Jerai Grant (6'-8", 220). Sophomore Bryan Narcisse (6'-6", 205) and freshmen Milton Jennings (6'-9", 225), Noel Johnson (6'-6", 190) and Devin Booker (6'-8", 235), Trevor's brother, also see significant playing time.
Illinois has not yet found a way to stop dribble penetration, and Stitt will use that approach whenever needed. The Illini have little time to improve their defensive coverage.
"It's something we're worried about. We talked about how we really don't have a stopper. We may have to back up a little bit on our pressure and play a more compact defense. We may have to go zone a little more to change it up and not let a team get in a rhythm.
"I think the freshmen are physically capable of being good defenders. I think they'll get better as time goes on. The other guys just have to make a decision that it's important for them. It makes a difference.
"We're gonna have to help each other. We've got to be a good defensive team and help each other. That's where we can make some strides. I think right now they're focused on their guy and not the team and the ball."
The Illini will also have to concentrate on ball security. Clemson uses at least three different full court presses, and they can score in bunches off turnovers.
"We're gonna have to take care of the basketball against their presses" Weber reminds. "We will turn it over some. Everyone does. You've got to be careful to not have multiple runs where you get three turnovers in a row because they are capable of streaks. They can score 6-8 points within a minute.
"We've just got to keep our calm. It will be a great experience for our guys, and it will help us prepare for games in the future. I understand it's a difficult place to play."
Hopefully, the Illini have learned lessons these last two games that will help them the rest of the year.
"Obviously they're frustrated, and I hope a little humbled and willing to work and listen, realize we have improvement to make. I think they've lost a little bit of confidence, especially the young guys. It's a long season, alot can happen. You learn from it and move on. The biggest thing is to keep getting better.
"Who's gonna be a leader when it gets tough? Who's gonna make a play or say the right thing in the huddles? We have to go through it, hopefully not too many times, and change it before it's too late."
Davis is beginning to understand how the upperclassmen have to take charge more.
"Exactly. Coach put up a quote from one of the message boards by a fan saying that no one stepped up. The upperclassmen didn't huddle with the guys or get in their faces and say, 'Let's go.'
"He's right. No one did that. One of us three needs to step up, get in everybody's face and say, 'Hey, we're fine. We've gone through some tough times, we've just got to get through it and win this game. Stay together.'"
Davis admits there are pressures within the team to limit leadership qualities.
"I think we need to be more vocal. Sometimes it's tough to be vocal because you have guys telling you you're being a suckup to Coach by being a leader. Guys talking behind your back.
"We've got to forget about all that stuff now. Check the egos at the door, come to the gym and be a family. We need me, Demetri (McCamey) and Dominique (Keller) to lead this team and be captains. If not, we're gonna have a lot of losses like we did last weekend."
Davis says the two losses may be a blessing in disguise.
"I'm kind of happy we lost those two games. It's an eye opener. You can't go into every game thinking you're gonna win by 40 because you're not. Now, guys are motivated and know that we need to win.
"By March, those two games will probably be key losses in our resume. But hopefully we can get this win here and have a key win for us."
Junior reserve Bill Cole will reserve judgment before agreeing with Davis. After all, he is still smarting over the fact the Illini just lost to Bradley, his Peoria hometown team.
"I'm not sure I agree that losing two games is a good thing. But if it does bring the team together and does make us play hard every single game, I could be wrong. I could see it being a turning point and a good thing for our season."
The team lacked energy throughout the weekend, but Cole did his part. As a part-time player, he may have finally his niche on the team.
"Until we learn to play every team with passion and energy, we're gonna struggle. Our mindset now is, if we can beat Clemson, it can take that taste out of our mouths.
"I've kind of embraced my role and just go out and give 110% until I'm dog tired when I come out. If I can give energy like that and get the crowd involved, he's gonna put me back in."
Whether the losses in Las Vegas will help inspire the Illini against Clemson remains to be seen. But Davis said it definitely had a positive effect on Monday's practice.
"Everybody's pretty quiet. We were down a little bit, but yesterday we had a great practice. It was one of the best practices we've had. A lot of energy, we went hard. So hopefully we can pick it up and go to Clemson and get a big win."