Behind guards D.J. Richardson and Sam Maniscalco, the Illini remained undefeated despite losing 21 turnovers in game against low-major Lipscomb.
Now that the Illinois basketball season finally reached your cable or satellite provider, there's no hiding the early-season learning curve for a team with seven newcomers, including six freshmen.
The schedule-makers knew what they were doing, and the Illini eventually scored a 79-64 victory over low-major Lipscomb in a Cancun Classic game Thursday at Assembly Hall. The game was more ragged than the stat sheet -- Illinois lost 21 turnovers -- but the Illini leaned on guards D.J. Richardson and Sam Maniscalco.
"We need experience and maturity,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "The only way to get that is to go through these games. You always want it smoother and a little better.
"One thing we haven't had to do is coach effort and attitude since the beginning (of practice). Our effort wasn't quite there at halftime. I didn't say much. The (assistant) coaches said it more than anything. The players responded.''
The Illini broke the game open with a 14-0 run in the second half and improved to 3-0 before play continued in the Cancun Challenge at Moon Palace Resort in Cancun, Mexico, next week. From here, the Illini planned to take Friday off, practice Saturday and travel on Sunday to Cancun, sharing the charter flight with the Illinois State travel party.
Illinois faces Richmond in the Riviera bracket at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, following the Illinois State-Rutgers game at 6. The winners meet at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, immediately following the consolation game. The Illini haven't played Illinois State in seven years.
The Illini won behind Richardson (17 points on 7 of 12 shooting) and Maniscalco (15 points in 22 minutes), who played 16 minutes in the first half despite his bothersome left ankle while the Illini rested freshman point guard Tracy Abrams and his turf toe.
"I'm getting better daily,'' Maniscalco said. "I'm making progress. It's all I can ask. At this level, you can't ever say you're 100 percent.''
Meanwhile, Richardson is 14 of 24 from the field in the last two games.
"The last couple of weeks, he's put a lot of time in the gym,'' Weber said. "The whole message this week: It's not the will to win that's important. It's the will to prepare.
"It seems like he's very motivated and very dedicated to it. I'm glad he's getting positive results.''
Now the Illini would like to get junior guard Brandon Paul in gear. He finished with 12 points, but most of them game in garbage time.
"He's got to come and play hard and do all the other things,'' Weber said. "If he's going to be special, he's got to make that decision.''Abrams wanted to bounce back from bad second half against SIUE, but his turf toe took him out of the starting lineup and limited him to 10 minutes. By essentially shutting him down for a night, the Illini hoped he would return to full speed next week in Cancun.
Besides his production, Maniscalco is also a teacher.
"Tracy is a freshman and still learning,'' Richardson said. "Sam has been doing a good job of teaching the younger guys and showing them the ropes.''
Weber is also excited about Abrams and the point guard combo.
"I hope it's a good thing,'' Weber said. "(Abrams) wants to learn. He just sits there. Everything I say, he just listens and sucks it all in. He calls me, talks to the coaches and comes into the office. Sam is the mature guy.''
Meanwhile, sophomore guard Crandall Head entered the game with 7 minutes 28 seconds left in the first half after sitting the first two regular-season games and two exhibitions while on suspension. The Illini were also playing without freshmen guards Myke Henry (ankle) and Devin Langford (finger).
Lipscomb (1-2), a program from Nashville, Tenn., picked to finish sixth in the 10-team Atlantic Sun Conference, played without Jordan Burgason, a preseason all-conference pick. Burgason hasn't played in any of the Bisons' three games this season.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.Illinois report card Back court -- D Despite a size advantage, the Illini big men didn't get much done. Two fouls less than 2 minutes into the game on Meyers Leonard didn't help. Front court -- A- D.J. Richardson and Sam Maniscalco carried the Illini. They were both active and productive, but Brandon Paul played his way to the bench to start the second half. Bench -- C The Illini didn't get much help from the reserves. The Illini were trying to rest Tracy Abrams and take it easy on his turf toe. Overall -- C- For those who saw the Illini for the first time on TV, they realized that this is a work in progress. The 21 turnovers showed there's plenty of work ahead.