CHAMPAIGN — For the third time in three seasons, the University of Illinois basketball team will be playing tonight without the safety net of a practice and detailed film session to prepare for its opponent.
It's not that Bruce Weber thinks Arkansas-Little Rock is a pushover. On the contrary. He knows that despite lacking the name recognition of many teams, the Trojans are a dangerous group plenty capable of handing the Illini their first loss of the season.
The fact that Arkansas-Little Rock was dead even with Michigan State at halftime Saturday, then lost by just five — 72-67 in Grand Rapids, Mich. — should be all the ammunition he needs to back his contention.
But the Illini coaching staff had to make a decision regarding days off this week. The NCAA mandates one day off per week when classes are in session. And during a week when Illinois has three games — including difficult-to-play Georgetown at home on Thursday and a road game at 4-2 Oregon coming up on Saturday — the decision was made to give the team the day off on Sunday, then spend two days preparing for Georgetown.
"We'll just pass out scouting reports today, then do a walk-through on Monday before the game," Weber said Saturday after Illinois survived a scare against Xavier before winning 65-62 at the United Center in Chicago.
"We did it this way one time last year and one time the year before, both when we had three games in a week," Weber said. "You just have to do it sometimes. Our guys will just have to study the game plan on their own and be ready to go."
The seriousness of that study will be underscored by the tussle Arkansas-Little Rock gave Michigan State, an opponent the Illini players respect from experience.
"Michigan State has had a bunch of big games and maybe they're going through a little transition and mentally they didn't get ready," Weber said. "At this point in the season teams aren't good enough to go in without focus and being emotionally up. We definitely aren't ready to do that.
"Even though we're playing at home, we're going to have to come in ready to play."
Weber obviously shared the Michigan State-Little Rock score with his team Saturday. He also shared one other score North Carolina 83, Kentucky 79 in Lexington, Ky.
"That makes our win at North Carolina look even better," Weber said. "We have to feel good about that.
"But we need to find a way to survive these three games this week. Then we'll have some practice time. Coaches are never happy, you now. We needed games, now I think we've had too many games in a short period."
Ask senior Dee Brown and he'll tell you he'd much prefer games to practice.
"A game is better than a three or four-hour practice," Brown said. "I don't want to go through that. I'd rather play somebody else and get a little two-hour game in and go home and relax. I don't want to sit and hear coach yell for four hours. Games are way better."
And if anyone thinks Weber's practice demeanor has changed since breaking his ankle one week ago, think again.
"You can still hear him," Brown said. "He ain't hurt his mouth none. He's still out there."
Arkansas-Little Rock is led by three players scoring in double figures. Lekeythan Malone, a 6-6 redshirt freshman from Dallas, scored 19 against Michigan State. Elijah Muldrow, a 6-2 senior, added 15. And the Trojans outrebounded the taller Michigan State Spartans 29-25.
Illinois carries a 24-game home court winning streak into tonight's game, but Brown said nothing is taken for granted.
"We respect every opponent," he said. "We don't just see them on the schedule and say we're going to crush them. We have to scout them. They have to come to the 'House of 'Paign' but there's no guarantee we will win there.
"We have to study for our opponents. We'll be ready. They'll be fired up. We just have to get some rest and study."
Mark Tupper can be reached at email@example.com