Illinois coach Bruce Weber thinks the next week will be telling in determining how far along his team’s development is.
The 19th-ranked Illini begin a challenging pre-Christmas slate Saturday against UNLV at Chicago’s United Center as they look to improve to 11-0.
Illinois is off to its best start since opening 15-0 in 2005-06, but despite being undefeated, there have been some bumps along the way.
After beating then-No. 19 Gonzaga on Dec. 3, the Illini nearly stumbled four days later against St. Bonaventure, shooting a season-worst 31.9 percent in a 48-43 win. They were much better in an 80-63 victory over Coppin State on Sunday, shooting 56.4 percent and hitting 10 of 22 3-pointers.
Still, Illinois once again let a lesser opponent to stay close. It led 54-37 with 14 minutes to go, but allowed the Eagles to pull within 59-57 with 8 minutes remaining.
Meyers Leonard helped close things out for the Illini, scoring eight of his 18 points during a final Illinois run.
“I told them I was proud of them, 10-0,” Weber said. “But we still have a long way to go. This is an important stretch. … If we don’t start making some strides, things can go the other way.”
First, the Illini will try to forget their latest visit to the United Center. Last December, as the No. 12 team in the AP Poll, they were stunned 57-54 by Illinois-Chicago.
Illinois is 32-10 all-time at the United Center, but has lost four of its last five there after winning 18 straight.
“I think as players, we have to just look at it as the next game on our schedule,” senior guard Sam Maniscalco said. “We’ve got to do the necessary things to do well. … But we haven’t talked about the bad luck, just focused on continuing to make progress.”
The Illini expect another challenge from the Runnin’ Rebels, who stunned then-No. 1 North Carolina in November. Illinois and UNLV met in the second round of last year’s NCAA tournament, with the ninth-seeded Illini winning 73-62.
Leonard, who is second on the team with 13.4 points per game, will try to slow the Rebels inside. The 7-foot-1 center had his second double-double of the season Sunday, finishing with 11 rebounds.
He’s averaging 7.2 boards and 2.6 blocks.
Like the Illini, UNLV (10-2) is still trying to form an identity. After averaging 83.0 points through 10 games, the Rebels have struggled in their last two, shooting 39.1 percent in a 62-51 loss at No. 14 Wisconsin last Saturday, then 42.0 percent in a 65-54 win over UTEP on Wednesday.
“Teams are really concerned about our offensive transition,” coach Dave Rice said after the victory over the Miners. “We’re going to have to guard for longer possessions and do a better job. … It’s probably not an offensive film we’ll send to the Hall of Fame.”
Anthony Marshall scored 10 of his 20 points during a 16-6 run to end the game Wednesday. The junior guard averaged 10.3 points during the team’s 7-0 start, but totaled 16 points in the next three - including two in the loss to the Badgers.
Now, UNLV hopes it can get Chace Stanback back on track. Stanback, averaging a team-high 14.3 points, was held to five points on 2-of-8 shooting against the Miners.
Stanback had 13 points in the NCAA tournament loss to the Illini.