The Iowa Hawkeyes are 5-9 on the young season and not expected to contend for the Big 10 championship. Coach Todd Lickliter is rebuilding a team devastated by graduation, academic and other losses. Those remaining are young, but they are Lickliter's type of players. With time, they will be difficult for anyone to beat.
Sophomore Matt Gatens (6'-5", 215) leads the Hawkeyes witha 12.9 scoring average. Freshman Eric May (6'-5", 225) and junior Jarryd Cole (6'-7", 250) both have averages over 9 points a game. May is considered a future star along the lines of former pro Dan Majerle.
Feisty freshman point guard Cully Payne (6'-1", 190) is averaging 8.4 points and leads the team with 53 assists. Freshman big man Brennan Cougill (6'-9", 260), senior Devan Bawinkel (6'-5", 210), soph Aaron Fuller (6'-6", 210) and freshman John Lickliter (5'-11", 175) all see time for the Hawks.
Lickliter teams specialize in three point shooting. They love to free each other for open looks at the arc and are collectively hitting 34.9% of their threes. Nine of their players have hit at least one three, led by Gatens with 30 of 73. They know they are underdogs and play like it. They hustle and fight for everything since they lack athleticism.
Weber remembers the Illinois game with Iowa from last year. He says that close encounter is typical of Iowa's play.
"If you watched the Purdue game last week, they're winning at halftime. It's like last year. They had a three point lead at halftime, and it was a 2-5 point game the whole second half. And that was the Purdue game. It was one point at half and it goes back and forth until Purdue makes a little run."
Iowa's biggest failing so far is turnovers. This was especially true against the Gophers according to Weber.
"Minnesota pressed full court, and I don't even know if they could get it past halfcourt at times. They just jumped on them early."
Still, Weber knows the Hawkeyes will give the Illini a battle.
"They play very good defense. They make you earn things. And they're gonna make you guard. The key right now is if they can take care of the ball. They have good shooters. And then Cole hurt us last year. He's active, he's mobile. They run him off a lot of screens into ball screens. Those are the things you always fear."
Weber was subdued, perhaps even distraught as he discussed this game at his Monday press conference. Much talk centered on problems his Illini have encountered in a 9-5 start to the season. It is hard to prepare for an opponent when you are searching for your own answers.
"We didn't accomplish what we wanted to in nonconference. On the positive, I guess we're 11 points away from an extra four victories. The most obvious problem is getting behind early. I probably have to address that with the starting lineup. It's a fine line because you have freshmen and their mental states to deal with. But we can't spot teams 10, 12, 19, 21 points and expect to make any progress.
"I still say shot selection is a critical part of our whole scheme of our team. I blame that on myself for allowing too much freedom. Somehow I've got to reel them back in and get them thinking a little more.
"Each game it's a different problem, whether it's scoring inside or rebounding or threes. Our overall defense is still not very good. The Gonzaga game was there for the taking. The thing that killed us down the stretch was our shot selection and then the stops inside."
Weber is considering starting one or more of Bill Cole, Jeff Jordan and maybe even Dominique Keller to see if he can find a combo that can get off to a quick start. Most likely, freshmen D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are vulnerable if there is a lineup change. Weber isn't happy with that prospect, but he may have no choice.
"A lot of their thought process is on scoring. I want them to score, but at the same time I want them to really help us and focus on defense. They have the physical abilities to do that. And they also have to learn some shot selection. They've hit a wall shooting-wise, but I think it could be resolved with a little better patience.
"I've told D.J. I want him to shoot because he's shooting 43% from three. But he's got to work to get himself open to get open shots. Early in the season, he was getting open looks because teams aren't as good defensively. Now they've watched them, they know them, teams get better defensively.
"So they both have to work harder to get those opportunities. Defensively, they both have athleticism, they can put pressure on the ball, they can deny the ball. It's just gonna take time to do it against the best players.
"It's a fine line. I've got to prop them up, but at the same time I've got to make them more accountable. The tough part of coaching is to stay on them but not destroy them, especially the freshmen. That's our dilemma with lineup changes, matchups, all those types of things."
Weber is sincerely concerned about the confidence level of the freshmen and how a benching might affect them.
"I worry about it. But I think it is a problem in our society with all kids. Everybody has to fail somewhere and then learn to deal with it. Life isn't perfect, basketball isn't perfect. If you keep never letting them fail, sooner or later you can't help them and they won't know how to deal with it. Hey, you're not shooting well, we're struggling, we've got to make a change. This is part of being on a team."
Illinois has major problems defensively. They gave up 16 threes to Northwestern, and Gonzaga made 15 of 18 two-pointers in the second half and overtime last Saturday. Despite their inexperience, Weber says the freshmen may be among his better defenders.
"The sad thing is, the last two games we've had the freshmen guard the best players. That's where we're struggling because we shouldn't have to put Brandon Paul on Matt Bouldin late in the game.
"Potentially, Brandon and D.J. can be very good defenders. They're solid now, they just have to learn habits. And just grow up as players. You miss a jumper and then you've got to go back and guard a player. That inconsistency of being a freshman. It's the older guys that are a little bit disappointing."
Weber's teams are known for their defense. In his first six years, his teams have given up 80 or more points in just six games total. They have already matched that mark this season.
"Yeah, we've given up 80 points six times this year already. I'm frustrated, and I think our staff is frustrated. Who's in the lead in the Big 10? It's teams that guard. And even around the country, Texas gets out and runs, but they guard the heck out of you.
"I think we have enough ability to compete in the Big 10, but we have to make a decision to make some defense a little bit of a priority. We're doing the same drills. I've allowed more freedom offensively, which means we have more possessions and they have more possessions. I can control it a little bit with that.
"It's a lot easier to play defense before your man gets the ball than when he gets it, especially if he's a good player. Just don't let them get the ball, or make them get it in a further-out position. And fight them in the post. Don't let them walk into it. We let them catch it too deep. We put ourselves in binds with one or two passes.
"Hey, let's just guard their butts the way we know. Just be there. And now, we can't hedge on the ball screen, we can't do this, we can't do that. We're trying to scheme and cover up our weaknesses."
There is precious little time to recover from the Gonzaga loss and play inspired against Iowa. Illini upperclassmen will need to decide what is more important to them, winning games or personal glory. Many problems would be resolved if they make a consistent effort to play an inspired team game.
All hope is not lost. The Illini are 1-0 in the conference, and a win against Iowa would help them regain their confidence according to Weber.
"Yesterday was a lot of talking and soul-searching. We've got to find a way to stay positive. We've got a home game here against a solid team but a game we can win if we play well. But we have to go do that."