Illinois coach Bruce Weber is leery of the Flyers. They played in the strong Atlantic 10 Conference and whipped Xavier by 25 points. Xavier is in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament. And they dominated an excellent Cincinnati team Monday night.
"When we go up against Dayton, we're gonna have to play at a very high level," Weber acknowledges. "For them to go into Cincinnati in a rivalry game and really control the game from start to finish, shows you how good they are."
Weber says Dayton coach Brian Gregory has a strong Big 10 background, and his team resembles Illini foes Michigan State and Purdue.
"Brian Gregory is a former assistant to Tom Izzo and was also an assistant at Northwestern for Kevin O'Neill. He knows the Big 10, he knows us. He has taken a lot of Tom's stuff, especially offensively. And then I would compare them a little bit with Purdue defensively.
"They will pick you up and press you the whole entire way. They won't back down. They just keep sending players in, playing up to 10-11 guys. They keep the pressure on you the whole time, so it's gonna be a challenge for Demetri (McCamey) and all our guards to deal with the pressure and take care of the basketball.
"Offensively, they'll push it just like Michigan State. The long outlet, the crossover dribble, the kickouts for threes, get it inside to the big guys. And then if they don't have anything, the ball screens, roll and replace. Some of the plays are very similar to Michigan State. It's gonna be one of the tougher teams we've played all year, especially the style of play."
Leading scorer and most dynamic player for the Flyers is junior power forward Chris Wright (6'-8", 226). He is averaging 13.9 points, 7.1 rebounds and better than a block a game.
"Chris Wright is a tremendous player," Weber states. "He has 62 dunks on the year. Maybe our whole team doesn't have 62 dunks. He's an athlete. He's a little undersized four that can rip and go, get it to the basket and dunk on you. He can dunk on you on lobs, they do a lot of different things to get it to him in transition. It'll be a very tough matchup for Mike Davis, Dominique (Keller) or whoever would be guarding him.
"Wright is a little bit like Lighty (David, Ohio State). He's a combination of (Chris) Singletary and (Anthony) Simpson for Kent State. Or Damian Johnson from Minnesota, 6'-6", 6'-7" long forward. He's probably built more like Simpson, but they iso you, rip and go's, get you on tip dunks and lob dunks."
Davis knows he has his hands full.
"Wright is an unbelieveable athlete. If we don't box out, he'll be all over us and outrebound us."
Sophomore wing Chris Johnson (6'-6", 191) also scores in double figures. Dayton uses 10-11 men, rotating them to wear out teams with less depth. Eight players average between 8.8 and 4 points a game. Senior Marcus Johnson (6'-3", 200) is third in scoring. He is streaky but can explode at times.
London Warren (6'-0", 187), one of seven seniors on this mature team, makes the team go from his point guard spot. He isn't a big scorer, but the Flyers rely on him under pressure. He has 144 assists on the season. He is backed by fellow senior Rob Lowrey (6'-3", 172). Lowery scores more than Warren but plays fewer minutes.
Senior center Kurt Huelsman (6'-10", 245) has started every game since his freshman year. He doesn't score much, but his defense is an anchor for the Flyers. Arlington Heights (Hersey) sophomore Luke Fabrizius (6'-9", 227) has been injured off and on this season, but he can light it up from three if left open. Others who see playing time include Proviso East senior Mickey Perry (6'-2", 197), sophomore Paul Williams (6'-4", 206), junior Devin Searcy (6'-10", 226) and freshman Josh Benson (6'-9", 215).
Weber knows he has a battle on his hands. The Illini played extremely well second half of the Kent State game. They need to repeat that performance.
"We're gonna have to play like that for 40 minutes. Kent State was good, but these guys are a whole nother step. If you look at their record, they're in a very good conference. And then if you really look at it, they're 1-7 in close games. A lot of close, heartbreaking losses. We've got to want to get to New York, and we've got to play like it and match their intensity. I think that will be the big thing.
"We've got to play smart, we can't panic. They pressure you to make you go fast. We're gonna have to take care of the basketball and make sure we get good shots.
"Brandon Paul may have to bring the ball up more. They'll try to take Demetri away. They do that with everybody. As soon as they make a basket, they're gonna be sitting there.
"It's not gambling, it's just we're gonna wear you out. We're gonna make you go fast, get you out of rhythm, disrupt you. They have athletes, they keep bringing them in and you're not sure which is which."
Vertical leap comparisons attest to Flyer athleticism according to Weber.
"I heard that four of their guys have a 40" vertical jump. That's pretty impressive. I think Jeff (Jordan) is, but I don't know after that. Jumping doesn't win games, but it gets you rebounds, deflections and all that stuff."
Illini players have great respect for Dayton. At the same time, they are uplifted by how they played second half Monday night. In particular, they showed maturity and a new level of teamwork in continuing to build their lead. Bill Cole was happy to see it.
"Yeah definitely. It was really good. We never took our foot off the gas pedal. A lot of times this season, we'd get up about 7-10 points and then maybe try to run clock or something at the end of the game. But we kept moving, kept getting good shots. And Demetri did a good job of pushing in transition."
Some have complained the team stands around and becomes complacent with the lead rather than going for the jugular. But any failure is a team problem rather than an individual one. McCamey was grateful for the improved play.
"It was good, a lot of pressure off me not having to dribble a lot and having to force things at the shot clock. You had teammates cutting and moving, and everybody playing as one unit. As long as we do that, we're a way better team than me just going off pick and rolls and things like that. Having everybody get shots is great."
Weber and his players all emphasized the importance of the big crowd Monday night. They hope for another good turnout Wednesday night.
"The crowd went way beyond what anyone on our coaching staff or the administration expected," Weber compliments. "It surprised everybody the interest in watching us. Especially with spring break and so many people gone. We appreciate our fans more. It is the second biggest crowd of the NIT. The Memphis game had 10,300+. We'll have an opportunity to break that.
"Hopefully we can pay back the fans for their support all year. I think we've been exciting, sometimes frustrating, sometimes baffling. But I think we've kept people in their seats or at least on the edge of their seats most of the season."
Mike Tisdale also praised the crowd.
"It was really impressive. It was pretty loud for 10,000 people. I'm glad they're all there and show support. It shows they still care about us. They stayed with us, and hopefully we can give them another victory."
Only two teams finish their seasons with victories, one in the NCAA Tournament and one in the NIT Tournament. That plus the chance to put another banner up on the wall, gain more notoriety through post season success and prove they belonged in the NCAA tourney all are motivators for Illinois. They are finding additional reasons for peak performances as they go along.
"I think we're starting to realize it's still gonna be important if we win this thing," Tisdale reminds. "No Illinois team has ever done it, so it would be a good thing for the program. I think we're starting to leave the NCAA behind us."
Fabled Madison Square Garden attracts McCamey.
"It's tremendous that we're still playing in the NIT and get a chance to play in Madison Square Garden. All the great names on that court. The Kobi's and LeBron's try to play their best games when they play in Madison Square Garden. There's a lot of tradition like Michael (Jordan) dunking on Patrick Ewing on that court."
It isn't certain yet, but the NCAA may drop the NIT as early as next season and add 32 teams to their own tourney as a money maker. If so, whomever wins this year's NIT may be the last one. That holds significance to McCamey.
"It would be tremendous. You always feel like you're on top because you're the last champ."