Illini put perfect start on line against UNLV
Talking to a radio station this week, Illinois coach Bruce Weber came up with a lot of question marks about his surprising team.
They are young. His bench is full of new faces after graduating four starters from last year, and there is little experience to fall back on. Then Weber mentioned one quality that the Illini teams have lacked in recent years, one that so far this season has trumped them all.
”They don’t seem to give in,” Weber said.
At 10-0 the 19th-ranked Illini are one of the last handful of unbeaten teams in the country. They are three wins short of starting Big Ten play with a perfect record, and getting here hasn’t been easy.
There was a moment this season that best illustrates Weber’s point, and it didn’t happen in a dramatic home win over Gonzaga – then ranked No. 19 – or on the road in a victory over Maryland.
It was St. Bonaventure that had Illinois on the ropes. The Bonnies were up by eight points late in the second half, the Illini weren’t shooting well and their best player, 7-foot-1 sophomore center Meyers Leonard, was struggling.
But in the final few minutes, Leonard found his way into the game by swatting a loose ball to a teammate to keep a key possession alive and junior guard Brandon Paul cracked the Bonnies’ defense open with a dunk and a pair of buckets and the Illini gutted out an ugly 48-43 win.
”Last year, the year before, maybe the year before that, I’m not sure we win that game,” Leonard said. ”But this year, we’ve got a different team and grind things out, and found a way to win.”
With a bench full of freshmen and three key players – Leonard, Paul and guard D.J. Richardson – coming off disappointing seasons, no one knew quite what to expect out of Illinois this season. Few expected a perfect start.
On Saturday Illinois will get a big test at the United Center in Chicago when it takes on UNLV (10-2). The Rebels knocked off then-No. 1 North Carolina last month, 90-80, burying the Tar Heels with 13 3-pointers (in 32 attempts). UNLV has scored 90 or more in five of its games, all wins.
The game will be a rematch of last year’s first-round NCAA tournament game, a 73-62 Illini win over a former Illinois coach Lon Kruger.
Kruger’s gone, on to Oklahoma, but Illinois thinks the memory of that game in March might stick with the Rebels.
”Revenge factor’s always in there; coach talked to us about that,” Paul said. ”We beat them last year, but that doesn’t mean anything.”
Under new coach Dave Rice, this year’s UNLV team is a direct descendent of Jerry Tarkanian’s running, slashing Rebel teams of years ago, Weber said.
”You saw what they could do in the Carolina game,” Weber said. ”They can hit those 3s in barrages and really take it to you.”
One of UNLV’s two losses, to Wisconsin, might provide a clue or two on handling the Rebels.
The Badgers, masters of slow and steady, controlled the pace and held UNLV to just 46 shots. The Rebels put the ball up 71 times in the win over North Carolina.
Sam Maniscalco, who transferred to Illinois this season from Bradley and is the only senior who plays, said defense may decide the game.
”We’ve got to guard them. That’s the biggest thing we’ve got to do,” he said. ”They’re not afraid to shoot the ball. They throw it up there and when it’s going in, they’re awfully good.”
The emergence of Leonard has been big for Illinois. He’s the team’s leading rebounder with 7.2 a game and second-leading scorer, averaging 13.4 points. And Paul and Richardson, when they’re on, give teams fits with their quickness and outside shooting.
But there’s probably no bigger reason the Illini won’t give in, as Weber put it, than Maniscalco.
The 6-0, 180-pound point guard is still fighting his way back from an ankle injury that cost him his senior season at Bradley, and is just starting to play full-time minutes the past few weeks.
He’s already provided a spark when Illinois has lacked it. He scored 24 in the win over Maryland and 19 against Richmond. At 23, he’s slowly and quietly become a leader of his younger teammates, something Weber has openly lamented that his past two teams have lacked.
Maniscalco is 13 inches shorter than Leonard, but he pulled the sometimes emotional center out of potential trouble as he fumed about a technical foul in the win over Coppin State.
”That’s when he felt a little more confident, that he could grab Meyers and say, `Hey, do this.’ Or he could get in a huddle and say `We’re fine, calm down,”’ Weber said.
Maniscalco, who is from Chicago, talked this week about what will be his first trip to the United Center as a player. He’s been there as a fan and seen Michael Jordan make the kind of shot he and his brothers imitated for months afterward in the family basement.
But Saturday’s trip, he said, will be all business.
”We’ve still got to stay locked in on what the job is, and the job is to go up there and get a W,” he said.