It’s too soon to think this Illinois team will be remembered as the Shootin’ Illini. Unless, of course, it’s in comparison is to last season’s Missin’ Illini.
“It’s night and day from our team last year,” senior guard Trent Meacham said. “We have a lot of guys who can shoot it.”
Illinois is 11-1 with only a matinee today against Eastern Michigan (2-9) at Assembly Hall left before it opens Big Ten play Tuesday at No. 10 Purdue.
Reasons for the good start abound, including a schedule designed with the knowledge the 10-man rotation would feature six sophomores.
Tuesday’s victory over No. 25 Missouri helped erase some of the memory of the two-point loss to No. 22 Clemson in Champaign. (”I still have a knot in my stomach because of that game,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.)
Illinois is shooting 49.3 percent from the floor, up from last season’s 43.5.
Opponents will have to respect their three-point marksmanship as well. Led by Meacham’s 47.4 percent, they’re shooting 39.5, up considerably from last season’s 31.9.
Although the Big Ten offers a step up in competition, last season’s team didn’t shoot appreciably different in non-conference play. Weber doesn’t want the Illini, who were 8-5 after they lost their last non-conference game to Tennessee State in 2007, to get carried away with their early shooting success.
“The biggest thing is we don’t want to get too offensive-minded,” Weber said. “We have to be sure to defend and rebound, that’s the number one thing.
“We hit that little stretch when we weren’t happy with the rebounding part. Some of the guys thought, ‘Hey, we’re making shots, we don’t have to rebound or do other things.’”
All the shots aren’t like Meacham’s long-range bombs. Forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale are scoring on short jumpers, with Tisdale shooting 50.5 percent from the floor and Davis, who shares the team scoring lead at 13.0 points per game, at 56.3.
“Even Davis and Tisdale can spread the floor, and that makes it tough (on the opposing defense),” Meacham said.
Tisdale and Davis can make the medium-range jump shot.
“We still want to get some points in the paint,” Weber said. “We were lucky enough vs. Missouri when Mike and Mike get that short corner jumper from 8-12 (feet). They were pretty effective, so we’re happy when we get that. We have to get some points, some layups in the paint.”