Are Illini ready to take on best in country?

By Jeremy Werner

The Illini basketball team is already at the Hawaiian Islands, but the trip won’t be all fun in the sun. After Sunday night’s unsavory performance against Northeastern, it is clear to fans and to Bruce Weber that the Illini are not ready to play against the country’s elite.

Well, they better get ready.

The Maui Invitational is one of the premier early tournaments in the NCAA and this year will feature a very competitive field.

Luckily for the Illini, they have another warm-up game Thursday night – Friday morning Champaign time – at the University of Hawaii.

The Rainbow Warriors dropped their season opener by one point to the University of San Diego.

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The game provides the Illini a chance to correct their mistakes from the Northwestern game – including turnovers, missed shots close to the basket and a horrible three-point percentage – before island-hopping to Maui.

Barring a catastrophe, the Illini should easily handle the Rainbow Warriors and head into the tournament 2-0. The Illini open up the Invite against Arizona State on Monday, a team coming off a dreadful 8-22 season last year.

But that record is misleading.

The Sun Devils return five of their six top scorers, including power forward Jeff Pendergraph who led the team with 12.1 points and 9.1 rebounds per game last year.

The Sun Devils also bring in one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, led by shooting guard James Harden.

If they are smart, the Sun Devils will swarm Shaun Pruitt to force Illinois’ wing players to pick up the scoring load.

But the Illini’s experience and athleticism should overcome the untested Sun Devils, propelling the Illini into the second round.

Should the Illini avoid an opening-round loss, they will likely play Duke – a team that needs no introduction and enters as the highest-rated team in the tournament at No. 10.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski’s team is the most talented and complete team in the tournament and would be a big test for the Illini so early in the season. Sadly, the Illini are not prepared for such a foe.

The Blue Devils are young – guard DeMarcus Nelson is the lone senior on the roster – but they are good.

Duke has started the year blazing, outscoring opponents 207 to 117.

Jon Scheyer, the one that got away from Weber, averages 17.5 points per game and has connected on seven of 10 three-point attempts.

He and the rest of the young outside shooters will likely prove too much for whatever combination of players Weber decides to throw at them.

But the Devils do have one glaring weakness the Illini could exploit: depth in the post.

Duke has only three players taller than 6-feet-8; all of them are underclassmen and none should scare Illinois.

The key again for the Illini will be to keep feeding the ball to Pruitt and Rodney Alexander, but Pruitt must handle frequent double teams and have a much higher field goal percentage than the 35.7 percent he had against Northeastern.

If they are able to somehow get by both ASU and Duke, the Illini would likely go on to play the winner of No. 12 Marquette and Oklahoma State. LSU and host Chaminade should not be any threat to either team.

The more likely situation, though, is that the Illini will play for third place.

This tournament will be a good early indicator of Illinois’ grit and talent level.

To win against such tough competition at the beginning of the season would be a big morale boost to an Illini team that does not look like it’s gelling.

Losing early to Arizona State could prove to be the exact opposite, creating more disorder and discontent among the players.

It would also further perplex Weber on how to handle his deep but youthful roster.

Oh, and Eric Gordon, how Champaign-Urbana hates/wants you now more than ever.

Jeremy Werner is a junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]