Illinois coach Bruce Weber has seen several family members and friends die from cancer, so he is happy to provide support for Coaches vs. Cancer. Weber and his assistants will be wearing specially designed orange and blue sneakers, and the players will have uniforms outlined in pink.
"It's suits and sneakers around the country, sponsored by Coaches vs. Cancer," Weber explains. "They encourage all the coaches to wear sneakers with your regular suit. More than anything for cancer awareness, our cause as a coaching profession.
Four schools, Oregon, Illinois, Brigham Young and Iowa State, will wear a pink uniform designed by Nike. And we also have pink shoes, and Nike designed a ball. It's a nice thing for our program. I appreciate Mr. (Ron) Guenther's continued support of Coaches vs. Cancer. The uniforms will be auctioned off afterward.
"The players were really excited to see the shoes. I think they look cool. And when you walk into the Assembly Hall, you'll take notice tomorrow."
Of course, the real point of the get-together is the Big 10 battle between conference rivals Illinois and Indiana. The Hoosiers are still in rebuilding mode and are playing mostly first and second year players. But they are beginning to come around.
Indiana showed progress last week by not panicking when the Golden Gophers rallied from a huge deficit to take a lead. Instead, the Hoosiers gathered themselves together, forced overtime and won in the extra session after falling behind by five at one point.
Then, IU picked up its first road win under Tom Crean by building a healthy lead at Penn State, not panicking when the Nittany Lions rallied and making plays with the game on the line. That was in stark contrast to Indiana's previous trips on the road, when the Hoosiers were overwhelmed at Ohio State from the opening tip and collapsed in the final six minutes at Michigan.
The Hoosiers' growth over those outings could be a sign Crean's ballclub is slowly maturing, and the team is starting to trust one another on the floor. The players seem more confident with Crean's offensive system, and they aren't making as many silly mistakes on defense. Crean has talked about rebuilding as a process, a series of steps his program has to take to return to the rarified air it once inhabited. Indiana took some major steps toward that goal with the two wins.
However, they then fell flat on their faces, losing at home to Iowa. As Illinois coach Bruce Weber described, the battling Hoosiers are learning they can't take anyone lightly.
"Indiana, we had to fight our butts off to win at their place, come back from 15 down. Tom Crean has done a tremendous job with them. He gets them to play very hard.
"Ironically, the game they didn't play hard was the Iowa game the other night. And their kids probably got a good lesson. So they're gonna come with a great deal of intensity. We have to take advantage of playing at home to play good basketball."
Weber explained the problems the Illini face against IU.
"The biggest thing is he gets them to play hard. When (leading scorer Maurice) Creek went down, it means some other guys had to pick it up. I think Verdell (Jones) has done that. The freshman (Christian) Watford, they've really used him as a go-to guy, isolate him and get him in the post. We need to do a good job on him.
"And this has given (Devan) Dumes a chance to play more. He's a guy that's scary because he has had some big games. He can jump up and make some shots.
"They lack some scoring inside. We have to make sure that continues to happen. I think that's where they get their struggles, when they don't get the inside scoring. But we'll have to match their intensity. They've been on the road, so they've been through the jitters even though they're young. I think they'll come in very focused, and we'll have to play very good basketball to have a chance."
Illini forward Mike Davis will guard Watford, and he respects the freshman's game.
"He's like one of those hybrid forwards who can dribble to the rack and shoot threes, a point four as Coach would say. They'll throw a lot of stuff for him, a lot of rips, he goes right pretty strong and gets to the basket. He's good and playing pretty well. He's gonna be a tough player in this league."
Crean orients his teams around guard play. Freshman guard Brandon Paul will defend one of several perimeter shooters for the Hoosiers, but he has confidence in the assignment.
"I've seen them play, and I think I can stop anyone I guard now. If I can focus on the defensive end tomorrow, I think we can get the win."
Indiana has a couple bangers who fouled slender bigs Davis and Mike Tisdale repeatedly in Bloomington. Davis expects more of the same Saturday.
"I wouldn't be surprised if they keep hitting us, trying to knock us out of our games. We have to keep our heads, post hard and post deep, and try to get our little hooks off."
Illinois played good team ball at Penn State and came away with an important victory. Part of the credit goes to Demetri McCamey and Bill Cole, both of whom stepped up their leadership after teammates voted them team captains. The fact the Big Ten Network television crew singled out McCamey's play despite a lack of scoring was significant to Weber.
"Demetri was their Player Of The Game, and he only had one field goal. It was a big field goal for us, a long three at the end of the shot clock. They recognized, and I hope he understands, that he did all the other things.
"They even showed a clip of him calling the guys together on the court. And Mateen Cleaves said, 'That's what leadership is all about.' Right there, we maybe made some steps in the right direction. But it's got to continue. We've got to get consistency before it's too late."
McCamey said he took his new assignment seriously and is beginning to understand the responsibilities of leadership.
"That's something I'll have to work on. It worked against Penn State, so I'll have to keep doing it. Everybody felt comfortable and just listened after that player meeting. We now have each other's respect, and for the captains as well.
"I feel like, if you're gonna play your best basketball, especially for the bigs if they're gonna bring high energy, block shots and rebound for you, they need to score as well. You've got to feed the big men the ball.
"If Tisdale scores and Davis scores, they can take their games to another level. And we have good shooters with Brandon, D.J. and Bill on the wings, so we can do a lot of damage that will help us win ball games."
McCamey's confidence was buoyed by the player vote.
"Definitely. They actually believe you can lead this team, and they're willing to listen and follow your stuff. Now there's a lot less pressure because you know they will listen and take your advice. Just getting that vote means a lot.
"When you know you have people who are backing you up, you can do a lot of things. With that support, it's better to lead. There's more responsibility, but I'm a junior, I'm older and I'm willing to put that on my back and play well."
Cole felt the same way. Since he hadn't played much before this year, he wasn't sure whether the other players were willing to follow his lead. Even Weber had his doubts.
"I would never have thought that Billy would be a captain going into the season. But he just kind of emerged and did what we asked. He plays hard, he wants to win and be a part of it, anything he can do. I think he's earned the respect not only of the coaches, but he's now earned the respect of the players."
Earning the players' respect was important to Cole.
"Yeah, it was a neat experience. Named by the coach is one thing, but to come back and be named by the players is pretty cool. It definitely made me want to work to lead these guys and make us stick together as a team. I think Meechie (McCamey) did a great job of doing the same thing.
"Everyone has their role on the team, some are scorers, some play defense or do other things. I've got to adapt my role to being a leader. I'm really working on it in practice and trying to carry it over to the games.
"It wasn't really thrust upon me. I've always had some leadership skills. I used to just lead by example, but now Coach wants me to be more vocal and talk to these guys and help them through the tough times and tough stretches in games."
Weber feels the private team meeting on the Sunday after the Northwestern away game may have been a turning point for the entire season.
"I thought the fact somebody called a team meeting was huge. I guess my message got across to them after the Northwestern game. Sometimes as a coach you overreact, you act stupid and you do things you wonder why you did them.
"Sometimes also you do things to get reactions from the guys, get something to happen. It was huge they took responsibility to have a meeting. I think some things were said, some honesty came out.
"And then the captain part solidified what we thought who our leaders were. You add all that up. If we can continue with consistency, that is key. We'll know more if we can get through these next ten days."