After the football team dropped the ball vs. Minnesota, Illinois basketball rolls against Southern Illinois.

 

No. 13 Illinois served as the pain reliever everyone in orange and blue needed.

Hours after a disappointing loss by Ron Zook's football team to Minnesota in Memorial Stadium left the Illini one win short of bowl eligibility, Illinois basketball thrilled the crowd with its fast pace in an 85-63 win over Southern Illinois before a sellout crowd Saturday night.

Unfortunately for the coaching staff across the street, they don't have Demetri McCamey. The senior point guard took the Illini to another gear while scoring 18 points and compiling nine assists with only one turnover.

"If Demetri plays, we've got a chance to be pretty good,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

The early-season warmups have concluded for the Illini, who improved to 3-0 before meeting Texas Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPN2) in the semifinals of the 2K Sports Classic in Madison Square Garden. The winner meets No. 5 Pittsburgh or Maryland Friday. The losers play earlier Friday evening.

"It's a national stage,'' said Illini forward Mike Davis. "Everybody is going to be watching. It's the first time everybody is seeing us. Guys picked us to go to the Final Four and all that stuff. I just want to go out there and play Illinois basketball, play defense and be physical.

"If we do that, we've got Demetri running the show. We go as he goes. Once he goes, we're going to follow behind him.''

The meeting between Illinois and SIU was the first since Weber left Carbondale for the Illini in 2003 and just the third all-time. It pitted Weber against his former team and a former assistant, SIU coach Chris Lowery.

"He just said, 'Man, you're good,' '' Weber said. "That's about it.''

Quiet for much of the preseason and first two games, guard D.J. Richardson scored 16 points with 4-for-5 shooting from the 3-point line, and Davis finished with 14 points and seven rebounds. Nevertheless, this game was about McCamey and the Illini taking off on the break.

"In transition, they're like the Lakers,'' Lowery said. "They're as good as anybody getting up and down the floor.''

Backed up by sophomore Brandon Paul at the point, McCamey can rest more on the bench -- he played 28 against the Salukis -- instead of doing it on the court. He's making more with fewer minutes because he's not coasting on the court, Weber said, and played hard enough to request a rest on the sideline.

"The best thing we've been able to do is rest him when he gets tired,'' Weber said. "Last year, we didn't feel comfortable. Brandon has done enough to handle the baketball to get us into things. We don't have such a dropoff.

"I had four or five guys ask out tonight. They're playing so hard that they're taking themselves out. We might not have had three or four guys ask out all last season. It's a different level of intensity. Now we have to see if we can do it away from home against some top teams.''

A preseason all-Big Ten pick who tested his marketability with the NBA last spring, McCamey led the Illini to a high-energy win when challenged by Weber, who reminded Illinois about bad losses to Bradley and Utah last season in the Las Vegas Invitational after big wins early in the Hall.

"We came out real emotional cause we knew how the feeling was against Utah and Bradley last year,'' McCamey said. "It made it even more special with Southern Illinois right down the street a couple hours and coach Lowery being with coach Weber under his system.''

After concentrating on defense for much of the preseason, the Illini still haven't installed much offense, other than a handful of sets, Weber said. Instead, they  worked on running. Weber, just as Lowery suggested, liked the early results with the Illini.

"We're playing team basketball,'' Weber said. "Team defense and team basketball on offense. I love our transition.''

Never mind the defense early. Both teams hit 9 of their first 13 shots, but the Illini eventually wore out the Salukis and led by 30 in the second half.

Guard Justin Bocot scored 14 points and forward Carlton Fay had 13 for the Salukis (0-1), who were picked to finish ninth in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference.

  Illinois report card Front court -- A Illinois bigs didn't post big numbers overall, but they shut down SIU big man Gene Teague. Forward Mike Davis listened to the NBA folks and coach Bruce Weber about running the floor. He's getting easy baskets with his speed.   Back court -- A Demetri McCamey stepped on the gas pedal, and the Illini took him for a ride. If this is Illini basketball this season, it's an end-to-end game. D.J. Richardson also woke up after a quiet start to the season.   Bench -- A It's only a week and three games into the season, but sophomore guard Brandon Paul is the team's most improved. His ballhandling and decision-making allow Weber to rest McCamey.   Overall -- A The Illini head to Manhattan and Madison Square Garden, where they get to make a first impression to the national audience after failing to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament last season. Let's see if the Illini can play like this against somebody their own size.