Day 3: Illinois | Traveling Violations
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The last few years Illinois ran a very deliberate offense. Everyone knew where to go on nearly every possession. That's how then-coach Bill Self taught the game.
But Self is in Kansas now, and new coach Bruce Weber believes in the motion offense, in which quick decisions are critical.
So the first week of practice here is about players getting comfortable with not just the new coach, but the new system. As talented as the Illini are, this isn't a team that is anywhere near a finished product.
"It's frustrating at times because they are trying to put in a new offense, a new defense," said sophomore guard Deron Williams. "Basically we need to be more aggressive on offense under Coach Weber."
When they get it down – and judging by Weber's phenomenal record at Southern Illinois, they will – then look out. This is a deep and talented team. The backcourt of Williams and ultra-quick point Dee Brown is tremendous.
But right now, he just wants effort as the kinks get worked out.
"I'm telling them now that the quality of play isn't always as important as your level of effort."
• We took the country route from St. Louis to Champaign, leaving the interstate behind to get on some one-lane roads with cornfields on both sides and one stop sign (if that) towns ahead.
Not much going on in most of these places, although some of them did look like good towns to get hooked on crystal meth in.
Actually, the ride through the country was awesome, rolling hills on a warm (low 80s) sunny afternoon.
We passed through all sorts of great places such as the slightly rude Schram City, which considering there are only 700 residents seems to be what most people driving through do.
• We took in lunch at Bob's Steakhouse in Pana, Ill., which as steak houses go ain't exactly Morton's. But then again Morton's ain't exactly Bob's. This place was great: good food at good prices, friendly people and plenty of atmosphere.
Or let's put it this way, you know anywhere else you can get a Rib-Eye sandwich and have every customer come over and say hello for $4.95?
We also met Bob Pritts himself, the proprietor and head cook for the last 25 years. He says Pana is struggling because of the loss of industry but his place has managed to make it through the tough times.
"I haven't made a lot of money," he said, "but I've made a lot of friends."
• A special nod to fellow Bob's customers Rev. L. Dale and Kathy Pease, Pana residents good people. Dale Pease preaches at the New Hope Baptist Church and his business card gave the following address: "4 miles south and 1 mile west of Tower Hill, IL 62571."
• Valued Reader email of the day (concerning tourist attractions in Kansas):
Brenham is not even a town. It is a grain elevator. The world's largest hand-dug well is in Greensburg.
(My apologies to the people of Greensburg. I misread my Rand McNally).
• Also, apparently Famous Dave of "Famous Dave's BBQ" is more famous than we thought. He has stores in other locations in the Midwest. Valued Reader George Young of Salt Lake City, Utah even sent us a lengthy email about the restaurant's history (it was founded in Minneapolis).
Even so, we aren't willing to go so far as calling him "Famous Dave" or even "Almost Famous Dave." We'll concede "Popular Dave" though.
• Because we are watching practices we are getting plenty of phone calls from NBA scouts, suits and front-office types.
And since we aren't above name dropping – plus everyone likes getting in the column – Monday we heard from Craig "Noodles" Neal of Toronto, David Fredman of Denver, Chris Grant of Atlanta and Mark Warkentien of Portland.
• Also checking in was George Karl, who is our hero because he is being paid $7 million to not work this year. Only in America.
• In Champaign we were pleased to catch up with old friends Verdell Jones, who runs Ft. Sooy, the finest youth basketball and life skill development program we've ever heard of, and Brett Dawson, the terrific young writer for the local paper.
• It's a huge recruiting weekend for Illinois, which will entertain point guard Shawn Livingston on campus this weekend. Livingston, a 6-foot 7-inch stud from Peoria, Ill., is one of the nation's top five high school recruits. Arizona and Duke also are in the hunt.
• The other night, in the spirit of team bonding and some fun, the Illini visited the local home of John Wright, a former NFL and Illinois star. Wright has an incredible spread just outside St. Joseph, Ill. that includes a full-size football field and a skeet shooting range.
Despite never having shot skeet, Jerrance Howard managed to be a near perfect shot immediately. James Augustine wasn't far behind.
"It was amazing [considering] they had such a quick lesson to be that good," said Weber.
If they wind up that accurate from three-point land, Illinois is on to something.
• The Tour will be in Indianapolis Tuesday and it being a great college basketball town, we have decided to stage a fan event.
Anyone looking to meet up for some cold drinks, hoops talk and a few laughs – and we have gotten emails suggesting that this describes more than a few of you – please stop by the Slippery Noodle Inn in downtown Indy between 8 and 10 p.m.
We will be in the front bar and we'd be honored to meet Butler fans, IU fans, Purdue fans, general readers, whatever. Come on by and "Tabmaster" Bearup may even buy you a drink. These are usually a pretty good time and let's face the facts, it is not like you have anything better to do.
Mileage thus far: 598.5 miles
Campaign stop Tuesday: Indianapolis