Clemson a Challenge for Illinois men’s basketball



By Jeremy Werner

Following last year’s 16-19 finish, a 6-0 start to the 2008-09 season seemed doubtful for the Illinois men’s basketball team. But after defeating Vanderbilt and Kent State – NCAA Tournament teams last season – and Tulsa away from the Assembly Hall, the Illini head into their ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup with Clemson on Tuesday with an unblemished record.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber hopes the promising start and nationally-televised game will help add some passengers to the Illini basketball bandwagon and fill previously empty seats at the Assembly Hall.

The Illini had sold out 60 consecutive home games heading into this season but have yet to sell out a game through their first three home games, averaging a paid attendance of 14,227 so far. Students can buy single-game tickets at the Assembly Hall box office for $11 each for the remainder of the season.

“We need to get the students there,” Weber said. “I hope we’ll have an extra showing of students (Tuesday) and get some great support for them and have them buy in. I’ve told the players you do it two ways. You play with a lot of passion and then you win some games. I think so far we’ve done that. Slowly but surely, we get those guys back in the stands and get the noise going.”

Like Illinois, Clemson enters Tuesday’s showdown with a flawless record at 7-0. The Tigers returned four of their top six scorers from last season’s 24-9 NCAA Tournament team. Trevor Booker, a 6-foot-7, 240-pound center, will be a load to handle in the post with the junior averaging 14.0 points and 9.7 rebounds this season.

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    Sporting a 40.3 percent team three-point field goal percentage, Clemson also features plenty of threats from the perimeter, including guards Terrence Oglesby (13.7 points per game) and K.C. Rivers (11.0 ppg).

    Weber expects Clemson to force a high-tempo game by using full-court pressure on defense and looking to run the court on offense. The Tigers are averaging 81.1 points a game, seventh best in the NCAA, and forcing 18.7 turnovers a game on defense.

    “I think (Clemson is) maybe the best team – because of their experience and their style of play – that we play in nonconference. We’re going to have our hands full,” Weber said. “It’ll be important that we make open shots. Because if we don’t, they’re getting the rebound and they’re going the other way. They just kind of live off that.”

    The Illini’s early success has been partially due to a stingy defense (opponents averaging 56.2 ppg) and ball movement (the Illini lead the Big Ten with 19.2 assists per game).

    But the most striking reasons for Illinois’ early success may be efficiency at the free-throw line, the team’s Achilles’ heel last season. The Illini are shooting 74.2 percent from the free-throw line, up from a 60.8 percent rate last season. Success at the charity stripe has been even more significant, as the Illini have won three games by six points or less.

    “We just have better shooters,” Weber said. “The guys that are getting free throws are better shooters. I think it’s a little bit contagious. Last year, we’d miss them. Then the guys who even can make them got up there, I think they felt the pressure even more to make them.”

    Sophomore center Mike Tisdale, named Big Ten co-Player of the Week on Monday, said the Illini still have to win more games to win back fans, but that he has already received a few pats on the back from people on campus after the team’s 6-0 start.

    “It’s pretty funny hearing stuff from people who don’t really say anything,” Tisdale said. “A lot more people that I don’t recognize come up and say ‘good game,’ a few teachers and stuff like that. Some more people are understanding what we’re about.”