Men’s basketball starts season with 2 weekend games

Bill Cole (30) jumps for a rebound during the exhibition game against Lewis University on Sunday. The Illini start the regular season Friday. Erica Magda

Bill Cole (30) jumps for a rebound during the exhibition game against Lewis University on Sunday. The Illini start the regular season Friday. Erica Magda

By Jeremy Werner

Judging by a narrow 62-56 exhibition victory over Division II Lewis on Sunday, the Illinois men’s basketball team has a lot of work to do to prepare for the rigors of regular season play.

But the Illini will have to make quick adjustments with Eastern Washington visiting the Assembly Hall for Illinois’ season opener at 8:30 p.m. on Friday.

“I think we learned that we can’t take anyone for granted,” sophomore forward Mike Davis said. “I think we came to the (Lewis) game thinking we were going to win the game by 20 because we won the first exhibition game (against Florida Southern) by 20. We got to play every team like we’re playing Wisconsin, Michigan State, something like that and play hard every game.”

Illinois will play two games in less than 48 hours, as the Illini host Texas A&M-Corpus; Christi on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said the busy weekend will be an early test of the stamina his team will need later on in the season.

“It’s for real on Friday night,” Weber said. “You probably always want two days to prepare, but you got, I guess, a tournament-type setup with Eastern Washington on Friday night and Sunday afternoon with Texas A&M-Corpus; Christi. I hope down the road – I guess your goal is to make the NCAA tournament – that’s the type of setup you’re going to have.”

Demetri McCamey, Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Mike Tisdale will start on Friday. The final starting position is still up in the air with senior Calvin Brock and sophomore forward Mike Davis listed as possible starters. Brock averaged 8.0 points and a team-leading 7.5 rebounds in Illinois’ two exhibition games. Davis was Illinois’ most consistent performer, averaging 14.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 3.0 blocks.

“I’m anxious to get back on the floor in front of the crowd,” Davis said. “Practice sometimes takes a drain on me. I want to get in front of some people, some fans, so I’m pretty excited.”

But the Assembly Hall may not be as full as it has been in years past. With tickets still available as of Thursday afternoon, Illinois is in danger of having its 60-game sellout streak broken. The Illinois players said this season’s decline in ticket sales is a hangover from last season’s disappointing 16-19 finish.

“I think after last year, I think we need to prove it to them that they need to come out and watch,” Tisdale said. “You can’t blame the fans. It’s our fault that last year didn’t turn out the way we wanted it to be. I think this year we can hopefully prove it to them that they need to come back and watch.”

Tisdale said he thinks the Illini have a good shot at winning some early games to gain momentum to start the season. Eastern Washington has had a rough start after finishing 11-19 overall last season and 6-10 in the Big Sky Conference. The Eagles dropped a Nov. 1 exhibition game to Carroll College 58-56 and defeated Puget Sound 90-66 on Nov. 8.

Three projected Eagles starters have missed time in the preseason, and their status is unclear heading into Friday’s game at the Assembly Hall. Eastern Washington has never played Illinois but is 0-5 all-time against Big Ten opponents.

After mixed preseason performances against Florida Southern and Lewis, the Illini are eager to start the regular season.

“It’s a big weekend for us,” Weber said. “We’ll learn a lot about our team. It’ll be a nice test for us.”