Four years in, Illini wait for big men to play big
Since he recruited them more than four years ago, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has talked about the rebounding damage Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis could do if they would bulk up and develop even a little desire to run into people inside.
Tisdale and Davis are seniors, and between them they've added 65 pounds in their four seasons in Champaign to what Davis calls their beanpole frames.
But Weber is still talking about what they could do in the paint - rebounding, scoring and drawing fouls - than what they've done.
''Why do some people play football and some don't? Some like to be hit and don't mind it,'' Weber said, explaining the gap between what Tisdale and Davis are and what they could be. ''Some guys really don't.''
If the 19th-ranked Illini (5-1) are going to live up to this season's expectations, Weber needs at least one of the two to develop at least a tolerance for contact, if not a liking.
Illinois has two 7-footers on its roster - the 7-1 Tisdale and 7-0 freshman Meyers Leonard - plus the 6-9 Davis, who often leads the team in rebounding but lives and dies with the perimeter shot. Even Tisdale, a solid ball handler, regularly floats out near the 3-point line before launching a jump shot.
The Illini find themselves regularly losing the rebounding battle. If they shoot well - as they did in an 80-76 win over Maryland last week in which they were outrebounded 45-34 - it doesn't matter.
And if they don't?
Illinois hasn't had to find out yet, with their next game Saturday at Western Michigan. Their only loss - 90-84 to Texas - was an overtime game in which they managed a slight edge on the boards. Shooting 25 percent after halftime was the culprit.
With North Carolina, Gonzaga and Missouri still to play before the Big Ten schedule starts in late December, Weber knows his team will be facing physical tests night and night out before long.
''There's no doubt they have to deal with the physical play. And some people just don't like physical play,'' he said.
With Tisdale, Weber knew he was recruiting a player who, in spite of his height, had never been asked to play tough, inside basketball. He didn't have the body for it, and played high school basketball at a small school.
''He was just a skinny, 7-foot guy. And over the course of time you knew he'd put weight on and strength,'' Weber said. ''And he's done that.''
Tisdale weighed 215 pounds when he came to Champaign from Riverton, Ill. Now he's at about 250. But Weber says his center is just learning how to use the weight.
''I think Mike Tisdale really wants to do it, but it's not a thing that he's done for 20 years of his life,'' he said.
On Tuesday night in a 73-47 win over Yale, Tisdale pulled down 13 rebounds. And while the competition may not have been exactly Michigan State, Tisdale was part of a tough, physical defense that saw the Illini through to a blowout win on a night when their shooting was often cold.
''Take no prisoners, no surrender,'' said Tisdale, talking tougher to go along with his play. ''That's kind of been our motto the whole year, and continues to be.''
Davis may be another matter. He's often the top rebounder, but Weber says he has little taste for the inside game.
''I just thought his quickness and his athleticism would be the thing that would make the difference,'' Weber said of Davis, who started college at 195 pounds and now weighs 225. ''(Defenses) nullify it, and that's where he's got to deal with the contact and make the play.''
Leonard, who's played regularly so far but may not be ready for big minutes in the rugged Big Ten season, could eventually end up being the inside animal Weber's looking for.
In the win over Yale, Leonard pulled down three rebounds and scored eight points in 13 minutes. More telling, though, might have been his one block. With little more than a wave of an arm Leonard swatted away a ball that guard Morgan Austin tried to lay up after a drive, then smirked toward his own bench in a way that the mild-mannered Davis and Tisdale never would.
''Meyers is the one who has the physicality,'' Weber said. ''He's just got to figure it out.''