Illinois hoops back in action

The college basketball season is one step closer.

The Illinois men’s basketball team holds its first practice Friday, with an open practice and scrimmage scheduled Saturday at the Assembly Hall. The doors open to the fans at noon Saturday, with the scrimmage set to start at 12:45 p.m. and ending at 1:30 p.m., giving fans time to head over to Memorial Stadium to see the Illini football team take on Ohio State.

The free event will take the place of the traditional Illini Madness event, which will not be held this year due to the recent departure of marketing officials, head coach Bruce Weber said.

“When we had done it in the past, we started planning in April and May and met three times over the summer,” Weber said. “I didn’t have anyone to meet with, so I just happened to look at the calendar … and I saw the Ohio State football game and I thought, ‘Hey, we’ll just have an open scrimmage.’”

Weber said he got the idea when teams got the opportunity to scrimmage with recruits before football games. NCAA rules have since changed and teams no longer get the luxury, but he thought with many people coming from out of town for the football game Saturday’s event would be a good opportunity.

Weber also stressed that the event wasn’t any less important than previous Illini Madness events because of the impact it can have on recruiting and allowing fans to get a glimpse of what is to come during the season.

“Even though it’s not the Friday night, it’s not the glamour and no dunk contest, it’s still an important event and we’re looking forward to it,” Weber said. “We hope to get a nice turnout and people get a sneak preview of the team.”

Sophomore center Meyers Leonard felt indifferent about not having Illini Madness, with defense lacking in previous years, but looks forward to playing a more game-like scrimmage.

“It’s obviously a lot better than what it would be (from an actual basketball standpoint) if we just had Midnight Madness, because all we would have done was dunk,” Leonard said. “Now we’re working on pick and roll, rebounding and actually having to run the floor.”

Weber agreed that the more intense session could be beneficial.

“We’ve got so many new guys and we have to make sure that they understand the intensity and playing hard is the most important thing,” Weber said. “The hype, the fireworks and all that stuff is great if you win, and we hope that carries over to the players.”

Junior guard Brandon Paul said he’s just eager to get back onto the court.

“I’m just gonna come out and compete when I can,” Paul said. “I don’t worry about that stuff, I just really want to get on the court and practice and get ready for our first game.”

Fans who do go to the scrimmage will get the first look at the new floor at the Assembly Hall, a project Weber said was much different and long overdue.

“I don’t know how old (the old court) was, but I think it was pretty old and there were a lot of dead spots. I think they have it in the master plan, so we did a new design and I think it looks great.”

As far as the action on the court goes, both coaches and players were in sync about what fans will see Saturday and at the start of the season in mid-November.

“The one thing I know will be there is that they’re gonna play hard, they’re gonna compete and be very physical,” Weber said. “That’s got to be our trademark.”