CHAMPAIGN — The plan, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber said, is to play to exhaustion, take a quick break and get back on the court. Instead of going with four experienced seniors like last season, the Illini will take another approach: bring fresh bodies off the bench, play hard on defense and create opportunities to score. With these Illini, depth is the biggest asset.
CHAMPAIGN — The plan, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber said, is to play to exhaustion, take a quick break and get back on the court.
Instead of going with four experienced seniors like last season, the Illini will take another approach: bring fresh bodies off the bench, play hard on defense and create opportunities to score.
With these Illini, depth is the biggest asset.
“It’s something we can use in the way we attack people,’’ Weber said Tuesday after a 10-day tour of Italy, where the Illini had a 5-1 record in games and scrimmages.
Weber learned more about his team on the court, and the traveling promoted bonding among the Illini that can help when things get more interesting in February and March.
But the biggest news is that Weber — once again — said he planned use to his depth. This time, he’s got no choice, and Weber thought using 10 players in his rotation is a possibility while playing 11 is less likely.
“I told the coaches, I know I can play 10,’’ Weber said. “I think I can squeeze in 11. It’s going to be hard to play 12. It’s just not enough minutes. If you’re going to play all those guys, you’ve got to have the right units, and you’ve got to have people that can score.’’
Weber often subbed five at a time in Italy, trying to spread minutes evenly to get a feel for combinations and abilities. The depth produced the best results on defense.
“If we play that style, I hope it’s something that wears people out,’’ Weber said. “We had everybody up. All five guys, all the time. We created a lot of turnovers, which we haven’t done in the last couple of years. We pushed the basketball. We’d let them walk it up once every 10 possessions.
“We’ve got guys who have a defensive mentality who will play their butts off. It’s an exciting thing as a coach.’’
On the flip side, “Can we score?’’ Weber said. “That will be the big thing.’’
The players could already feel a change in the team’s style.
“The reason why we win this year is defense,’’ junior guard D.J. Richardson said. “We got up there and played great defense.’’
The bench will become a motivator, if it hasn’t already.
“We play hard,’’ junior forward Tyler Griffey said. “Everyone comes to play. We’ve got battles at every position. No one can take a day off. That will make us better in the long run.’’
The trip may have been most beneficial for Joseph Bertrand and Griffey, “Two guys that kind of got lost in the shuffle last season,’’ Weber said.
Bertrand twice led the Illini in scoring and found a niche when the Illini play a full-court game. His ability to drive also helped.
“He’s good at getting into the paint,’’ Weber said. “We haven’t been good at getting into the paint. He’s got to find something in the (half-court) offense. We’ve got to help get him where he’s good. He’s better when the game is up and down.’’
On a team that lost 102 turnovers compared to 87 assists, Bertrand’s 12 assists to seven turnovers was another positive sign. Bertrand shot 61.8 percent from the field and hit 3 for 4 from the 3-point line and ranked third in scoring at 8.8 points per game.
“Coach has been talking about this is a new team,’’ Bertrand said. “We’re pressing a lot more than last year. We’re faster. We’re more athletic.’’
Griffey was second in scoring (12.8) and first in rebounding (5.7).
Weber experimented by playing centers Meyers Leonard and Nnanna Egwu together. That also led to Weber trying some — take a deep breath, Illini fans — zone defense. While both players move well, Weber is concerned about getting burned by big, mobile shooters if he’s using both of his bigs together.
“It’s something we have to figure out defensively when we can use them,’’ he said.
The zone defense didn’t go well, Weber said. The Illini played it in one quarter and gave up the most points in any single period.
The initial building block in Weber’s first Big Ten Conference title in 2004 came in the exhibition tour, assistant coach Jerrance Howard said. An overseas trip promotes team-building, and Weber rotated roommates to help relationships between players to grow.
“We don’t have any problems with each other on or off the court,’’ guard Brandon Paul said. “It gets competitive sometimes. Other than that, we’re in our groups. We got a chance to see everyone’s personality.’’
NOTE: Weber has yet to meet athletic director MIKE THOMAS. ... Weber won’t have the Illini here for every home football game during the fall recruiting season. He will give them Labor Day weekend off.
John Supinie can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.
TOP OF CHARTS
Statistical leaders for the Illini during their exhibition tour of Italy:
Brandon Paul 13.9
Tyler Griffey 12.8
Joseph Bertrand 8.8
Sam Maniscalco 8.6
Nnanna Egwu 7.4
Mike Shaw 5.3
Ibby Djimde 4.0