Kent State is a good team. They played Illinois down to the wire in the South Padre Tournament last season and deserve respect. It will be a difficult assignment in front of a cavernous, half-full Assembly Hall.
"They had a great run in the (Mid-American) conference," Illinois coach Bruce Weber describes. "Going 13-3 is a nice accomplishment with the travel, competition and coaching in that league. They got upset by a very good Ohio team in their tournament that beat Georgetown (in the NCAA Tournament). They beat Ohio twice in the regular season.
"You have a team that has a lot of talent, a lot of athletes. When they kick it in, they can be very good. We're gonna have to be ready to play."
Weber is looking for anything to motivate his players to take the NIT seriously. Everyone is still disappointed and somewhat embarrassed to be playing before small crowds with minimal national publicity while teams they beat play in the popular NCAA Tournament.
Mike Davis may not be speaking totally for himself.
"For me personally, I'm still dreading playing in the NIT. Everybody talks about the NCAA Tournament. I guess if we go to New York and win it, it will salvage things. But I'm still upset about not getting in. Coach is right. We just have to move past it and win the NIT hopefully."
Bill Cole doesn't dread the NIT, but he admits it's harder to get psyched for it.
"It's not really what we wanted, but we're trying to make the best of it. We felt like we might have got snubbed a little bit. But in the end we've just got to control what we can control, and that would be going to Madison Square. Coach has been telling us that's a great experience."
Among the motivators for Weber is the reality an early loss in the NIT will prove the NCAA Selection Committee right. That would be another serious blow to fragile Illini egos.
"Yeah, you're definitely right," Davis acknowledges. "The only way to make a statement is to win it, to prove we should have been in the tournament. If we don't play well Monday and lose, it will be like we didn't belong in the tournament."
Weber believes fear may be the best motivator for this Illini team, but he will keep looking for anything that can work.
"For our kids' sake, I think it's good we played them (recently). We had to fight to win the game and was a battle down to the end. It's a little bit of a fear factor for our guys.
"They took it to us. It was an intense game, which I think is a good thing in this situation. It's your last game if you have a letdown. I need all the ammunition and motivation I can get for our guys."
Sophomore Justin Greene (6'-8", 230) leads the Golden Flashes in scoring with 3.6 points a game and rebounds at 6.8 a game. He is shooting .541 from the field. Close behind him is Chicago senior Chris Singletary (6'-4", 220). He scores at a 12.1 clip while adding 4.8 boards a game. His 122 assists are by far the most on the team.
Other starters include junior guard Rodriguez Sherman (6'-2", 185), senior guard Tyree Evans (6'-3", 210) and senior Frank Henry-Ala (6'-5", 210). Sherman and Evans produce 10.8 and 9.8 points a game respectively.
Henry-Ala is less productive, in part because 6th man senior Anthony Simpson (6'-8", 215) spells him and adds 9 points and 5.9 boards a game. Freshman Randal Holt (6'-1", 180) and seniors Mike McKee (6'-5", 190) and Brandon Parks (6'-10", 270) offer additional depth. McKee is an outside marksman.
Kent State coach Geno Ford discusses his team.
"We've got a team that's got pretty good offensive balance, but we don't shoot the ball particularly well. We're very streaky. There are nights where we're great shooting the three, but then there are nights the basket looks like the size of a thimble. We kind of have to do it by committee. Most of our guys are more offensive players.
"Justin Greene didn't play at all last year as a freshman. And now he's turned into our leading scorer and leading rebounder.
"Chris Singletary has matured. He's evolved into a good student. He has a 3.0 GPA, is on line to graduate and has become the leader of our team. He was honorable mention all-conference as a junior and first team all-conference as a senior.
"He was just as good last year, but he has concentrated better and been a better leader by example instead of taking some practices off. He's been consistent with his approach. He's had a terrific year for us.
"Anthony Simpson plays starter minutes, but he told us earlier in the year to bring him off the bench to give us some offensive punch. That was his doing or he would be starting."
Weber is impressed with Singletary.
"He's a tough matchup. He's a little bit like Muhammad El-Amin from Stony Brook, a small forward who has some skills and can go out on the court. This young man really passes the ball well for his size. At a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio, he's the number one assist guy on the team."
Demetri McCamey remembers Singletary from his Chicoago Farragut high school days.
"Chris Singletary is a bulldog. He's gonna try to bully you. He's been that way since high school. He can step out, and he can penetrate. We're gonna have our hands full with Chris."
Cole respects the Golden Flashes.
"They've got some real tough guards. They have three or four guards that average (close to) double figures. They've got Singletary back who was a real tough guard for us last year at South Padre.
"Playing them not too long ago down to the wire makes us realize they're a tough team that we can't take lightly. A team with a lot of talent and a lot of fight in them."
Weber is concerned by all the Golden Flash athletes. Greene deserves special attention.
"Evans wasn't playing at that time, a talented and versatile guy. You've got Singletary who is a matchup problem. And then they make an effort to get Greene the ball in the post. He's a very good offensive rebounder. We've got to keep a body on him.
"If they get going up and down and making shots, they're going to be tough to deal with. Hopefully we can defend them and keep them from getting easy looks and getting on a run with a lot of transition."
Ford offers praise for the Illini and says they are improved over last year.
"Last year Mike Tisdale was still kind of a question, Mike Davis was a potential kind of guy. Now Tisdale has had a good year for two straight seasons, and Davis is a borderline pro. You add the Richardson kid, who is a dfference maker.
"McCamey has become a calming force for their team. He does for them what Singletary does for us. He's the guy that, when something really needs to happen at a big time in the game, McCamey wants the ball and usually delivers.
"They're not a real deep team, but that's not necessarily a knock on their other guys. If I had McCamey or Davis, I don't think I'd take them out much either. They are good players and tough matchups."
Illinois will look to use its size advantage inside. However, with four guards running and attacking the glass, it might be necessary to defend them with a smaller lineup. Illini freshman Brandon Paul might be a key performer Monday.
Paul has made improvements in his game over the year and has added better defense, passing and board work to his arsenal. He explains why the transition has taken time.
"Basically in high school I was an offensive specialist. I've definitely improved my game in a lot of areas. I'm getting a lot more rebounds per game, getting my teammates the ball with assists, and at the same time go out and play defense.
"My game has definitely developed. Obviously, I still have a bunch to work on. But I've done better with the little things like boxing out, jump-stopping like Coach has been teaching me."
NIT games have not drawn big crowds, one of the reasons the NCAA may add 32 teams to future NCAA Tournaments and eliminate the NIT. But as long as it exists and includes the Illini, they might as well make the best of it. McCamey hopes the home crowd will provide its usual lift.
"I think it will be a real good crowd for an NIT game. Kent State is gonna be pumped up. They've got two Chicago players I know pretty well. Last year, they took us down to the end. We know it's not gonna be a light load. We've got to be ready to play."
Cole feels it will be beneficial to sleep in their own beds after the long trip to Stony Brook.
"It's a good thing to play at home. We don't have to travel this week, so hopefully we'll be a little more rested. We've got to get back to winning on our home floor."