Freshmen blend in to help Illini basketball start strong
Illinois freshman guard Brandon Paul, right, dunks against Clemson during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 2, 2009, at Littlejohn Colliseum, in Clemson, S.C. (AP Photo/Brett Flashnick) By Brett Flashnick
After falling to Western Kentucky in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament last season, Illinois won eight of its first 10 games of the 2009-10 campaign. The Illini’s offensive prowess carried them to victories in their first four games, all of which were at home against smaller programs.
But the team’s defense was tested when it competed in the Las Vegas Invitational during Thanksgiving Break. Illinois dropped both of its games in Sin City, as its defense faltered in the second half of each game. The team fell to Utah on a last-second shot after leading the game by 16 at the half, and it went on to lose to Bradley the next day.
“We’re having some growing pains right now, but we’ll get through it,” junior forward Mike Davis said after the team returned from Las Vegas. “I’m kind of happy that we lost those two games because it’s an eye opener. You can’t go into every game thinking you’re going to win by 40, because you’re not. I’m kind of happy that we lost because now guys are motivated and we need to win.” What happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas, though, as Bruce Weber’s squad went on to win its next four games, including victories against then-No. 18 Clemson and a Vanderbilt team on the rise.