- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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They were there when Illinois was left out of the NCAA tournament two years ago. They experienced reaching the second round of the NCAA tournament last season. They know where the Illini's strengths and weaknesses have been each year.
Following Illinois' come-from-behind overtime win over Fulgor Omegna in the team's final game in Italy last week, Richardson used that knowledge to compare where the current team stood.
"One thing D.J. said, a couple years ago we would have given up and lost that game and lost all hope," Paul said on Tuesday. "We kept fighting. Everyone on the team wanted to win."
It was a game Illinois coach Bruce Weber would have understood if his team had dropped. It was the Illini's fourth game in as many days. They were tired from playing basketball. They were tired from sightseeing. They were tired from taking long bus trips. To add to it all, Weber wasn't happy with the officiating.
"It was the worst officiating in the history of basketball," Weber said. "You think going on the road in the Big Ten is bad. They made up rules. With all the frustration, tired legs, tired minds, we sucked it up."
As the calls mounted against Illinios, Paul showed the leadership Weber is expecting out of him this season. Paul made sure his teammates didn't lose their cool.
"I had to tell a couple people we're going to get the last laugh," Paul said.
And they did, completing what Weber saw as a productive trip. He was pleased with his team's bonding off the court and its play on it. Weber returned with a long list of positives and a short list of concerns as Illinois now gets ready for the 2011-2012 season.
Weber was especially optimistic the Illini could have more depth and put more defensive pressure on opponents this season. During its trip, Illinois had 12 players average 12 minutes or more and forced an average of 28 turnovers a game.
"I told the coaches I know I can play 10 [players a game this season,]" Weber said. "I think I can squeeze in 11. It would be hard to play 12. There's not enough minutes. I think the biggest thing if you're going to play all those guys you have to have the right units and you need ones to score. I know we can guard, but can we score?"
Sophomore guard Joseph Bertrand and junior forward Tyler Griffey put themselves in a good position during the trip to be among the players Weber relies on this season. After both barely saw the floor last season, Bertrand and Griffey were among the most consistent contributors in Italy.
Bertrand led Illinois in scoring twice, averaged 8.8 points and had one of the team's best assist-to-turnover rations with 12 assists and seven turnovers.
"Coach has been telling us this trip was a great opportunity not only for the team, but for individuals to get playing time," Bertrand said. "I was looking forward to the trip and showed what I can do and how I'm ready."
Griffey did the same. He averaged a team-best 5.7 rebounds and was second in scoring at 12.6 points a game.
"Tyler stepped up big time," Paul said. "If there was an MVP, he would probably have to get it."
Paul also did his part. He averaged a team-best 12.9 points and did so by scoring inside and out. He and Griffey got to the foul line a team-high 21 times during the trip.
Weber also found positives in the team's offensive rebounding, sharing of the ball and the encouraging play of his freshmen.
Weber did depart Italy with concerns of his team's defensive rebounding and turnovers. He also thought sophomore center Meyers Leonard needed to be more aggressive, especially on the boards.
"Overall, a spectacular 10 days with great memories," said Weber, who visited where his father was born in Austria before returning to the United State. "The biggest thing is, ‘Is it going to pay dividends when you get into the season?' That's what we'll have to see."