Struggling Eagles pose final non-conference test for Illinois

By Jeremy Werner

There was a bit more holiday cheer for the Illinois men’s basketball team following its 75-59 victory over Missouri on Dec. 23.

But Illinois coach Bruce Weber has warned his team following two days of rest that the victory over the Tigers would mean nothing if they are ill-prepared for Sunday’s matchup against Eastern Michigan at the Assembly Hall.

“They get that break, then they got to check it in again and start playing,” Weber said. “So that’s the big thing we’re going to have to emphasize. We made a nice step with the Missouri game. If you want to get in the top 25, you have to make sure you beat Eastern Michigan.”

Eastern Michigan (2-9) is the final nonconference opponent Illinois (11-1) will face in regular season play and will provide the Illini with one last chance to warm up before their Big Ten opener at No. 10 Purdue on Tuesday.

Weber said he wants to continue to see the Illini improve their rebounding and point production in the paint. The Illinois coach also wants to use the game against the Eagles to further integrate Kentucky transfer Alex Legion into the lineup.

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    Legion was limited to six minutes of play against Missouri, partially because of the effective play of his teammates and also due to his own struggles (0-of-3 shooting). But Weber said he would use Sunday to get Legion more involved because “down the road we’re still going to really need him.”

    “It kind of didn’t seem like he was quite ready for that,” Weber said of the Missouri game. “I told him after he’s got to be patient and he’s got to blend himself into the team. I think right now he thinks, mentally, ‘I’m going to go out there and score a bunch of points.’ I want him to score but he has to work his way in there and have a feel of team basketball and time and tempo.”

    Eastern Michigan was expected to compete for the Mid-American Conference title this year but is off to a rough start. The Eagles have been upended by two opponents the Illini have already defeated, in Georgia and Detroit, as well as two upcoming opponents on Illinois’ schedule, Purdue and Michigan.

    The Eagles are 0-7 away from home, and will be without talented point guard Carlos Medlock, who averaged 14.8 points and 4.1 assists last season, due to injury. But Eastern Michigan features two post players who could give the Illini fits.

    Brandon Bowdry, a 6-foot-6, 235-pound forward, leads the Eagles with 15.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, while 6-foot-8, 235-pound forward Justin Dobbins averages 11.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.

    “The two post guys, Bowdry and Dobbins, are very athletic, tough to defend, the things that maybe have given us a little bit of trouble,” Weber said. “We had a little bit of trouble early against Detroit against those kinds of guys.”

    Weber hopes to use Sunday’s matchup as one last chance for the Illini to tighten the screws before heading to West Lafayette, Ind., for the conference opener against the preseason conference favorite on Tuesday.

    “If we’re not ready to play (at Purdue), we’re going into a pretty hostile place where they play as physical or as aggressive as any team in the country,” Weber said.