CHAMPAIGN — On their 10th day in Italy, the new Illini faced their toughest test to date.
The opponent: Fulgor Omegna, a lower-division pro team that for some reason didn't have numbers on its uniforms.
"So we had no idea who the heck we were guarding," Bruce Weber said from Italy.
The arena: Sweltering, or "10 degrees hotter" than the Assembly Hall during the alumni game.
The referees: A tad bit shady, according to the Illini.
"The officiating was the worst I've seen," Weber said. "I've probably been over here 10 times, and I've never experienced anything like that."
Throw in the fact it was the Illini's fourth game in four days and you can see why coaches were ecstatic to leave with an 89-85 win in overtime.
"We persevered," Weber said. "Our guys sucked it up and found a way to win."
"I think that game said a lot about this team," senior Sam Maniscalco added.
Illinois won four of five games in Italy, but there were no Final Four declarations afterward. Players and coaches acknowledged the foreign tour doesn't guarantee anything.
But the tour did give them an idea what they are working with.
One, this team has some guts. That was apparent when a freshman, Tracy Abrams, spearheaded a comeback against New Zealand.
Two, it has some fight and doesn't shy from a challenge.
"Nnanna (Egwu, another freshman) got in a scuffle against New Zealand," Weber said. "You like to see that."
Finally, and perhaps most important, Illinois was at its best when using all of its parts.
The final game was a good example.
"Our older guys kind of got us back in the game. Then I put in four freshmen and we came back and took the lead in overtime," Weber said. "And we ended up winning it."
The Illini also learned Weber has a different "vision" for these Illini. According to him, the vision includes a deeper rotation, pressure defense, and offense that stems from their defense.
Against Roma Selezione, 12 Illini played at least 13 minutes. Against New Zealand, 11 Illini played at least 14 minutes. In a 20-minute scrimmage against West Virginia, 12 Illini played at least five minutes (the equivalent of 10 minutes in a regulation game).
Still, why should we believe the staff will eschew the Big Ten mold and stray from its strict rotation of years past? We shouldn't, until it happens.
In the first three games last season, nine guys played at least 13 minutes. By February the rotation was predictable and short, and competition in practice waned as reserves learned they weren't going to earn minutes regardless.
But that team was much different than this team. The top players then, for the most part, gave them the best opportunity to win. This season the staff envisions a nine- or 10-man rotation, according to one staffer. There are several reasons Illinois could benefit from utilizing more players. One, there aren't five players clearly better than the reserves. Two, the Illini aren't dependent on one player, who has to be on the court no matter what.
We won't know until January or February — the Big Ten haul — if Weber's vision of a deeper rotation is simply coachspeak or a sincere change in philosophy. But coaches loved what they saw in Italy, where the Illini masked their weaknesses (outside shooting, ball handling) by emphasizing their strengths (pressure defense, athleticism, floorburns).
"In terms of our style of play, it was good to get rest every couple minutes to keep the tempo up and keep after them. I really think it worked to our advantage," junior Tyler Griffey said. "Instead of 7-8 guys, you're playing 10, 11, 12, 13 guys almost. You go in for three minutes and play your absolute hardest and the next line comes out and does the same."
The basketball highlight was a 21-point rout of West Virginia. The 20-minute scrimmage showed these Illini at their best — against a familiar level of competition.
"We might have played as well for a half as we have in a long time," Weber said.
"We just got after them and didn't let up," junior guard Brandon Paul said.
There were teaching moments, too, such as when the Illini missed a critical rebound that allowed New Zealand to score the winning bucket in overtime. Sound familiar?
"And taking care of the basketball," Weber said. "We've got to do a better job of that, with (limiting) turnovers."
The Illini returned from Italy with thicker luggage than when they left. Paul bought himself an Italian sweater and keychains for friends. Griffey bartered with a street vendor for several small paintings for his mom.
"She wanted some extra virgin olive oil," Griffey said. "So I got that, too."
They also returned with the belief a new philosophy might be in order. If the Illini are going to be any good, they might have to play harder and play more guys than in recent seasons.
"We were very aggressive," Weber said. "We wore people out."
"I thought we showed flashes of what we can be," Maniscalco added. "That's an athletic group, an energetic group, a group that can come at you in multiple ways. We can pressure, we can play up-tempo type basketball. That's when we were at our best."