Illinois notebook: Davis looks to impress basketball coaches

John Supinie

A week into the practice season for the Illinois basketball team, freshman forward Mike Davis earned the "most improved'' label, said coach Bruce Weber.

As you recall, Davis was the surprise commitment in August from Alexandria, Va., as an athletic 6-foot-9 forward and second-team all-Metro pick by the Washington Post who had earlier decided to attend prep school to let his body mature. The slender 195-pounder instead accepted a late offer from Illinois, where everyone expected him to redshirt.

Now, he's making one last pitch to play with his performance in preseason practice.

"Everybody thought I'd redshirt because I'm skinny,'' he said. "I came here and battled hard. I showed I can play with them. I'm the best running big man we have. I can get down the floor and get some dunks. The next three weeks will determine if I redshirt or not.''

Weber has plenty of options along the front line. With Davis, he's got one that he didn't expect this fall before the season opener Nov. 11 against Northeastern.

"You would say he's so raw,'' Weber said. "He has so much to learn. He picks things up. He's a very talented kid.''

Davis also has is what you can't teach. He's the tall athlete who can run the floor and shoot to 15 or 17 feet.

"The first couple days in practice before the Canada trip, it was, 'Oh, my goodness,''' said Weber, as in wow this guy has a long way to go. "Then, all of a sudden, he started making plays, tip dunks, hitting jumpers.

"He's a little bit like (James) Augustine, a big guy who can run forever. I'm not saying he's James, but he won every race with the bigs in preseason conditioning. He ran the mile better than the guards.

"Now, he's weak. He's got to play hard all the time. We just see his potential. To me, it's that 6-8 athletic forward in the SEC. We don't have that in our league.''

Davis averaged 17.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 3.5 blocks as a senior center last season. He'll play forward for the Illini.

Davis' first chance to impress the coaches in Assembly Hall starts Sunday with the Orange and Blue scrimmage at 5 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults and $2 for students. Seating is general admission. Tickets can be purchased online at www.fightingillini.com, by phone at 1-866-ILLINI-1 or in person in the Assembly Hall north box office.

Football update

When Illinois takes a week off from the Big Ten Conference football race, the Illini (5-3 overall, 3-2 in the Big Ten) can ease some of the pressure when they host Ball State (5-3, 3-2) in the homecoming game Saturday (11 a.m., Big Ten Network).

A victory would leave Illinois bowl eligible for the first time in six seasons, end a two-game losing streak and generate some momentum heading into the final three Big Ten games.

"It might take a little bit of weight off our shoulders,'' said Illini linebacker Brit Miller. "We want to finish strong in the Big Ten. Being bowl eligible would be one goal achieved that we wanted for the season.

"It's very much a momentum thing. Winning is contagious. Beating these guys would help us roll into the final three games. We need the momentum to finish out. It's been a good run so far.''

This week, it's all about a bowl trip.

"Ball State has five wins also,'' said Illini right tackle Akim Millington. "They're trying to get bowl eligible also. This game makes one of us eligible and leaves the other one trying to get there. No matter what angle you look at it, everyone wants to go to a bowl game and be successful. That's what we're trying to accomplish right now.''

Women’s basketball update

April Sykes, rated as the No. 2 player in the class of 2008 by hoopgurlz.com, made an official recruiting visit to Illinois over the weekend. The 5-foot-11 guard from East Oktibbeha County High School in Crawford, Miss., is also considering Rutgers, Louisiana Tech, LSU and Maryland.

Chicago Hope senior guard Zhaque Gray also made a visit. She will likely choose between Illinois and Penn State.

The Illini have eight scholarships available for this year's senior class, although coach Jolette Law is expected to hold back some openings to balance her classes. Illinois has four seniors, four juniors, one sophomore and two freshmen on the roster. The NCAA limit is 15 scholarships for women's basketball.

Macie Blinn, one of two players from the class of 2008 who committed to Illinois under former coach Theresa Grentz, visited last weekend.

In other news

Senior linebacker J Leman is a quarterfinalist for the Lott Trophy, named after Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott and goes to the outstanding college defensive player of the year who also makes impact off the field. … Senior Ryan Rowe reached the finals of the Midwest Regional championships to earn a berth in the Intercollege Tennis Association indoor tennis championships on Nov. 1. Rowe retired from the regional title match because of injury. … Senior forward Ella Masar earned offensive player of the week from the Big Ten in women's soccer after scoring two goals in the 3-0 upset over No. 24 Indiana Friday. Illinois is 9-5-1 overall and 4-3-1 in the league after a 2-1 loss at No. 5 Purdue Sunday.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.