Weber wants Illini to live up to hype

Bruce Weber wants his players -- like Tyler Griffey -- to have a killer instinct against inferior opponents. AP Photo/The News-Gazette/Robert K. O'Daniell

The hype surrounding this year's Illinois team has been building ever since the Illini last walked off the floor last season, and coach Bruce Weber believes it may have affected his players.

There was talk of a Big Ten championship, a Sweet 16 berth -- or better, a nationally ranked recruiting class highlighted by a McDonald's All-American and the possibility of having a few future NBA players.

But after two unexpectedly competitive exhibition games, Weber hopes his players have awoken to the reality that when they tip off the season against UC Irvine on Monday [ESPN3.com at 7 p.m.] nothing will be handed to them, no matter the hype.

"I think our team bought a little too much of the hype," Weber said on Sunday night. "We haven't arrived, and we didn't play like we arrived [in our exhibition games.]

"It was a by-product of all the media days hype. It was a great lesson. Hopefully, it'll help. It's fun, but there's a long way to go."

Weber expected to see more from his team, especially from senior point guard Demetri McCamey, during their 76-67 win over Southern Indiana and 75-65 win over Lewis, but he isn't hitting the panic button, like some who follow the program.

"I think there was a crisis after the two exhibition games, at least from the media and from the fans," Weber said. "It's so early, and we're so young and new. You go to figure it out. I wish we were peaking. I don't way to say peaking, but I would love to see us playing better. I think it was a good learning experience."

Weber believed part of the reason for the early struggles was an emphasis on defense in practice. When he looked back at last year's disappointing season, it was the Illini's inability to play consistent defense that jumped out at him.

"We've put a lot of time in on defense," Weber said. "Offensively, we're not going to be clicking how we should be and how we could be. We can always get better on offense. It's just the defense that we got to get better at. That's the thing that killed us last year."

After Sunday's practice, Weber reminded his team to not overlook UC Irvine or any of their early season opponents. When it came down to it last season, the Illini missed the NCAA tournament because of their non-conference play. The Illini fell to Bradley, Georgia and Utah -- three teams which finished with a combined 44-49 record last season -- during their non-conference slate. Those losses came back to bite them when Illinois was weighed against other potential NCAA tournament teams.

"We have to respect the game," Weber said. "We have to respect the opponent. We have to learn not to just beat a team by five points. You're capable of beating opponents by a bigger margin. You have to have a killer instinct. I think that hurt us last year."

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.