Weber pushes Illini to exceed high expectations

John Supinie

His background is in education, but Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber must consider himself part marketing man.

He's always got slogans, whether they're written on notes to players, printed on T-shirts handed to the team or used as theme for a season. It's not the kind of work that would get him hired at Sterling Cooper on Madison Avenue, but everyone gets the message.

While Weber is talking about orange pride and blue collar, his team knows the one main talking point this season: Rise Up.

"It's something I kept saying to the players,'' Weber said. "Take your game to another level.''

Illinois bounced back from a rare season out of the NCAA Tournament in 2008 to finish in a tie for second place in the Big Ten Conference and earn a No. 5 seed in the NCAAs last season. A loss in the first round to Western Kentucky was another smudge on a 24-10 record overall tarnished by four losses in the last five games. With the Big Ten poised as perhaps the best conference in the country, the Illini couldn't afford to sit back and say, “We arrived.”

A talented four-man recruiting class rated No. 14 by Rivals added athleticism and big dreams for the future, but this season still revolves around three returning junior starters – guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale – and forward Dominique Keller, the only senior on scholarship.

"We have a chance to be one of the top leagues, if not the best,'' Weber said. "We're going to have to take it. If we're going to have to compete and fight for the Big Ten title, fight for the upper part of the league and make strides to get into the NCAA Tournament and move forward in the tournament, then those guys have to take big steps. We're hoping they listen to that.''

If there's a case study on how not to do it, forward Mike Davis said, it comes across the street from the basketball complex.

"You don't want to go backwards,'' Davis said. "We're not focused on stats. We want to win as a team, everything that football isn't doing. We use them as an example. Sometimes things go left instead of right, sometimes down instead of up. We have to keep our head on our shoulders.''

While freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul are expected to make immediate impact – Richardson as a starter and defensive stopper, Paul as a possible starter and shooter – the Illini may search for the intangibles lost from Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham, guards who graduated after last season.

Illini football had unsung heroes in 2007 during a drive to the Rose Bowl. In basketball, Frazier and Meacham were those types of players, Weber said, by providing leadership and serving as the team's two best defenders.

"At the end of the year, we didn't put Chester on the ballot for all-conference,'' Weber said. "I got calls from two or three coaches asking why. Not only were they thinking of voting for him for all-conference, they might have voted for him for MVP in the league if we had won it. It's one version for fans, one version for coaches.''

Illinois basketball has only one victory in the NCAAs since the run to the national championship game in 2005, so last year was just a small step.

"We don't want to settle for last year,'' Keller said. "Rise up and be better. Don't settle to be a 3-point shooter. Be a 3-point shooter and a ballhandler. Don't be a rebounder. Be a rebounder and a shooter. Raise your game everyday in practice and raise the level of intensity.''

McCamey evidently got the message in a meeting with the coaching staff following last season. He dropped close to 20 pounds, and a playing weight of 200 makes him much more athletic. His attitude has also improved. Davis tried to improve his ballhandling and perimeter shooting, but his offseason was cut short because of a broken foot and tonsil surgery. He set a goal of 10 rebounds a game.

Tisdale always wants to gain weight and strength, but he's remained at 235 pounds since last season. His growth may have come mentally after replacing Davis in the U.S. basketball tryouts for the World University Games in Colorado Springs, Colo., in June. Tisdale didn't make the team, but he gained confidence that may translate into better production this winter.

"It's real easy to lay down and just say, 'I'm already a good player,' '' McCamey said. "If you want to be a great player, you have to get to the next level. You have to do the things coach Weber wants. Play defense. Push the ball. Do the little things to help you be a great player.

"It's rising up and becoming better players and becoming men.''

John Supinie can be reached atJohnsupinie@aol.com.

Illinois men's basketball schedule

Home games in CAPS. Time and TV when available.

Nov. 13 — SOUTHERN ILLINOIS-EDWARDSVILLE, 7 p.m., ESPN360.com

Nov. 17 — NORTHERN ILLINOIS, 7 p.m., ESPN360.com

Nov. 21 — PRESBYTERIAN, 7 p.m., BTN

Nov. 24 — WOFFORD, 8:30 p.m., ESPNU

Nov. 27 — vs. Utah, at Las Vegas Invitational, 9:30 p.m.

Nov. 28 — Bradley or Oklahoma State, at Las Vegas Invitational, 7 p.m. or 9:30 p.m.

Dec. 2 — at Clemson, ACC-Big Ten Challenge, 6:15 p.m., ESPN

Dec. 5 — BOISE STATE, 6:30 p.m., BTN

Dec. 8 — VANDERBILT, 7:30 p.m., BTN

Dec. 13 — WESTERN MICHIGAN, 1:30 p.m., BTN

Dec. 19 — vs. Georgia, at Gwinnett Center, Duluth, Ga., 6 p.m., ESPNU

Dec. 23 — vs. Missouri, at Scottrade Center, St. Louis, 8:30 p.m., ESPN2

Dec. 30 — NORTHWESTERN, 8 p.m., BTN

Jan. 2 — vs Gonzaga, at United Center, Chicago, noon, CBS

Jan. 5 — IOWA, 8 p.m., BTN

Jan. 9 — at Indiana, 7 p.m., BTN

Jan. 12 — PENN STATE, 8 p.m., BTN

Jan. 16 — at Michigan State, 2:30 p.m, CBS

Jan. 19 — PURDUE, 8 p.m., ESPN

Jan. 23 — at Northwestern, 7 p.m., BTN

Jan. 27 — at Penn State, 5:30 p.m., BTN

Jan. 30 — INDIANA, 1 p.m., ESPN/ESPN2

Feb. 3 — at Iowa, 7:30 p.m., BTN

Feb. 6 — MICHIGAN STATE, 8 p.m., ESPN

Feb. 9 — at Wisconsin, 6 p.m., BTN

Feb. 14 — OHIO STATE, noon, CBS

Feb. 20 or 21 — at Purdue

Feb. 23 — at Michigan, 6 p.m., ESPN

Feb. 27 or 28 — MINNESOTA

March 3 — at Ohio State, 6:30 p.m. or 8:30, BTN

March 6 or 7 — WISCONSIN

March 11-14 — Big Ten Tournament, Conseco Fieldhouse, Indianapolis

March 18-21 — NCAA Tournament, first and second rounds

March 25-28 — NCAA Tournament, regional semifinals and finals

April 3, 5 — Final Four, Indianapolis