Illinois-Texas Preview

For a pair of power programs that aren’t sure what to make of

their early season success, Illinois and Texas are about to get a

good barometer of where they’re headed.

The 13th-ranked Fighting Illini might already have a decent idea

where the Longhorns are going.

Illinois gets an up-close look at a new Texas offense inspired

by one of the Illini’s former stars Thursday night in the

semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden.

Illinois (3-0) returned all five starters from a team that went

to the quarterfinals of the NIT, and Bruce Weber’s squad looks

quite capable of making a return to the NCAA tournament.

The Illini ran out to big first-half leads in opening wins over

UC Irvine and Toledo, but they needed to work a little deeper to

put away Southern Illinois on Saturday. Illinois led by 11 at the

break before opening the second half with a 19-4 run that helped it

knock off the Salukis 85-63.

“One of the things we weren’t very good about last year was

extending leads, playing with leads,” Weber said. “I thought at the

end of the first half and into the second half we were really

staring to make some progress in that.”

The Illini are shooting 54.4 percent from the field, and three

of their guards are looking good from 3-point range. Senior Demetri

McCamey and sophomores Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson are a

combined 18 for 38 (47.4) from beyond the arc.

Illinois was 10-1 when it made 40 percent of its 3s last season

and 11-14 otherwise.

Weber, though, is even more impressed with his defense. The

length of his backcourt, combined with 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale and

6-9 Mike Davis, have helped the Illini limit their opponents to

36.0 percent shooting.

“That was one of the comments two coaches said last week, ‘Man,

we’re not going to see that kind of length maybe the rest of the

year,'” Weber said. “… We block shots and get a lot of

deflections. If we have that intensity we need on defense it will

really help.”

The Illini should be a good test for Texas (2-0), which spent

the offseason revamping its offense after the departures of Damion

James, Avery Bradley and Dexter Pittman.

Coach Rick Barnes spent time in Utah studying the pick-and-roll

offense coach Jerry Sloan and the Jazz run, a system that also

emphasizes pushing the ball in transition.

The quarterback of that offense is former Illini point guard

Deron Williams, who subsequently handed over Utah’s playbook to

Weber.

Highly touted freshman Cory Joseph – who played at the same

Nevada high school as Richardson – is eventually expected to play

the role of Williams in Barnes’ system. He had eight points, seven

rebounds, four assists and four steals in an 89-58 win over

Louisiana Tech on Nov. 10, while fellow freshman Tristan Thompson

had 17 points off the bench.

Combined with sophomore forward Jordan Hamilton, who’s averaged

22.5 points, Barnes likes what he sees from his youngsters.

“The biggest thing is we have a group of guys who have really

started to do the things we need them to do,” Barnes said. “This is

a much different style than we have played in the past. They bought

in to it so far, but we know we have a lot of growth ahead of

us.”

Texas and Illinois have split four meetings, with the Longhorns

beating the fifth-ranked Illini 72-64 in the last matchup Dec. 23,

2000.

The winner faces No. 5 Pittsburgh or Maryland in Friday’s

final.