Illinois has completed its final exams and is ready to take on Georgia Saturday. Timing may be off after the academic pressures of the week. If the players lack intensity, it could be a tough battle on a neutral court.
The Illini defeated the Bulldogs soundly last year, scoring the last 22 points as their opponents' resolve was shattered. But new coach Mark Fox arrived in Athens with a positive reputation earned as head coach at Nevada. He will need time to upgrade recruiting and install his system, but his team will not back down to the Illini.
Coach Bruce Weber reminded how his team lost two neutral court games in Las Vegas after four wins. With four more wins under their belt, the Illini now face two more neutral court games. As center Mike Tisdale relates, any away game can be a trap no matter the opponent.
"It's another road game. Last year, the game was pretty close until the last ten minutes. I think they were a little dysfunctional last year. They have a new coach this year, and they've been playing well together now. Hopefully, we can go down there with the right mindset and get a win."
Georgia is 4-4 on the season, their wins unimpressive. But they have a potential superstar in Trey Thompkins, a mobile 6'-10, 247 pound sophomore forward. Thompkins leads the team with 14.3 points a game and is shooting 50% from three. He is also a dominant rebounder.
Travis Leslie (6'-4", 202) is a sophomore guard with great athleticism. He is also in double figures, averaging 12.8 points a game. Other expected starters include junior forward Chris Barnes (6'-8", 240) and guards Ricky McPhee, a 6'-1", 184 pound senior, and sophomore Dustin Ware (5'-11", 182). McPhee averages 8.8 and can explode at any time.
Freshman guard D.J. Richardson describes the Bulldogs.
"They're a pretty good program, and they play very hard. They have two pretty big postmen who can play pretty good. I think Georgia might run some zone, and they might press, so we've been working on a lot of press offense."
Illinois is averaging 80 points a game, a big improvement over last season. Weber hopes good shooting continues.
"It's surprised me a little bit how well we've shot it. I just hope it keeps going. Every couple days in practice, we try to get some extra shots up with good form. Hopefully, we can keep up this rhythm."
Of course, they are also giving up more points, something Weber wants to change.
"We're rated very high offensively, but we're not rated very high defensively, for obvious reasons. If we could just do the little things, it would lead to success down the road.
"The one thing we haven't done, the thing we struggle with, is helping each other. One player helps another player, and then that player needs help. You've just got to keep helping each other. We haven't done that. It was much better last game, but we still need better awareness."
Team defense is essential, especially since the upperclassmen are not highly physical and need assistance frequently. Freshmen Brandon Paul and Richardson are improving as individual defenders, but they are still learning when to help out their teammates.
Richardson takes pride in his individual defense, and it appears Paul is beginning to feel the same. He says Weber shows confidence in him.
"Coach Weber wants me to be one of the top defenders. My role is to guard the top player that doesn't bring the ball up the court. I definitely feel like it's a challenge and is something I can work at. He's definitely pushing me because he knows the sky's the limit for me. He keeps telling me if I keep working hard, I'll be great."
If the Illini can take their hard work on defense in practice and apply it to the Georgia game, they should come out victorious. Especially since there are still a lot of tickets available for the game. But no game is guaranteed. They will need to overcome any post-finals lethargy to win.
Richardson believes the Illini will be motivated for the contest.
"Coach Weber says a goal of ours should be to get back inside the Top 25. That's what we're working on right now."