Weber not worried about close exhibition game

The Illinois basketball team hopes Saturday’s narrow victory in its exhibition opener against Lewis serves as a wakeup call — nothing more.

The Division II side held even throughout much of the 75-65 loss to Illinois, a team that battled inconsistency throughout last season.

Still, Illini head coach Bruce Weber thinks the result could be positive for the No. 13 Illinois team, which had been building hype throughout the preseason. He even went as far as to say he’d rather have a performance like Saturday’s over a blowout.

“I think if I had my choice between the two, I’d take the struggle a little bit because they’ve been told how good they have a chance to be and they needed a little wakeup to realize exactly where we’re at,” Weber said.

The lackluster performance may have been predictable, considering Weber substituted often and played all 11 scholarship players early on.

And although they return almost every significant contributor, the Illini played four freshmen after barely practicing their half-court offense during the first few weeks of practice.

“It’s our first game. Offense was a little shaky. We kind of slowed down there for a little stretch,” Mike Davis said after the game. “They made some plays in the first half, they made some shots. We didn’t get rebounds, we didn’t run the floor, we didn’t do things we were supposed to do. It was only an exhibition game.

“(We) made some key plays in the end and escaped with the victory.”

Opponents will only get tougher for the Illini, who play Southern Indiana in their final tuneup before the regular season opens next week.

After that, they’ll play five ranked opponents before Big Ten season starts.

Weber has said repeatedly that the Illini’s defense was not good enough last season to win games in which they weren’t shooting well. As a result, Weber has stressed defense above all else early in the season.

The Illini conceded a 29-11 run during the first half Saturday after jumping out to a 9-0 lead. Mike Tisdale knows that needs to improve if the Orange and Blue want to fulfill their No. 13 ranking and Final Four aspirations.

“I think some guys realize that we have to play defense, myself included,” said the senior center, who conceded none of the seniors hang their hat on defense. “I think we’ll get in a better rhythm this game and we’ll slow down a little bit more on offense and just pressure more on defense. I hope this game will help us realize that.”

Still, poor performances in exhibition games haven’t necessarily been precursors to bad seasons. Last year, Syracuse lost to Division II Le Moyne and ended the season as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Weber isn’t too worried about his team.

“I don’t think there’s anything glaring but I think you saw a little hangover from the hype in the game on Friday that we’re good … As a fan, you might start panicking a little bit. As a coach, it brings a little bit of a caution sign up but it’s a long journey, a long process,” Weber said.

“We have the players, we have the talent, now we’ve just got to figure it all out, get them all to mesh together, and I think that will happen as we go.”