Illinois basketball is off to a good start, but that's nothing new. Illinois may answer more questions in New York City Thursday and Friday.


Texas coach Rick Barnes did some homework in the offseason while reshaping his Longhorns.

Ranked No. 1 midway through last season, Texas raced to a 17-0 record. The Longhorns overwhelmed a string of big names, such as Pittsburgh, North Carolina, Michigan State and Arkansas. Then the Longhorns fell apart with a 7-10 record down the stretch and eventuall lost in the NCAA first round.

So Barnes searched for answers and felt the Utah Jazz offense, loaded with ball screens, would work with an offense filled with talented guards and shooters. Barnes made trips to Jazz practices before Illinois coach Bruce Weber got a phone call.

It was Deron Williams, the Jazz all-star and former Illini modern day whiz kid.

"How come coach Barnes can come and you can't come?'' asked Williams. No problem, Weber soon had a copy of the Jazz playbook, giving him a little more insight before No. 13 Illinois (3-0) plays Texas (2-0) in the 2K Sports Classic semifinals at Madison Square Garden Thursday (8:30 p.m., ESPN2) on a trip where the Illini can answer question: Just how good are these guys?

Weber wonders if the Longhorns will even change the names of the plays before the game, but the key still centers around stopping a Texas roster stocked with wing forward Jordan Hamilton, guards Jai Lucas and Dogus Balbay plus a pair of talented freshmen -- guard Cory Joseph and center Tristan Thompson, former teammates with Illini guard D.J. Richardson at Findlay College Prep in suburban Las Vegas.

"They lost some guys (from last year), but they have a lot of talent,'' Weber said. "There's no doubt about that. They're running a lot of Utah Jazz stuff with ball screens. They feel like Joseph and Lucas can really use ball screens. That puts the defense in a bind. They have shooters who can spread you out.''

Hamilton averaged 22.5 points a game in wins over Navy (83-52) and Louisiana Tech (89-58), and forward Gary Johnson averaged 16 points and eight rebounds. Joseph is "considered one of the top guards in the country,'' Weber said, and Thompson came off the bench to average 14 points and seven rebounds.

"The biggest thing is that we have a group of guys that are really trying to do things we've asked,'' Barnes said. "We know that we're a much different team and playing a much different style than we have in the past. Overall, I'm pleased with where we are right now.''

After three easy victories in Assembly Hall, Weber cautioned everyone, including the Illini, about not getting carried away, but this trip will answer some questions even in his mind.

"As far as getting some national recognition with what we did last week, I heard lots of feedback over the weekend,'' Weber said. "Hey, Are you guys for real? Now this is a chance to kind of solidify it. Are you for real or not? I've still told the guys to keep it perspective. It's long season and a long journey. A lot of things can happen.''

Three games don't make a season, but the Illini created offense with defense, ran the court and improved fundamentals. Illinois passed the ball better than last season, Weber said, and "there are a lot of good signs from a lot of different guys.''

Illinois' first goal was to be ready for this week. Like everyone else, Weber will know Thursday and Friday, when the Illini meet No. 5 Pittsburgh or Maryland.

"I like what we were last week,'' Weber said. "It was the vision I had with them. Play with great energy, keep coming at people and rotating guys where you have fresh legs and play hard. Can that transform away from home against good teams on back-to-back nights?''

If Illinois and Pitt meet Friday, it would be the fourth meeting between top 25 teams this week. The Illini get the idea about being ready.

"That's why everyone is so excited about going to Madison Square Garden,'' said Illini forward Bill Cole. "We're not just going out there to play. We're going out there to win.''

NOTE: The Illini tip time is approximate Thursday and based on the finish of the first semifinal. . . Texas is ranked No. 22 in the USA Today coaches poll. The Longhorns are the first team listed in others receiving votes in the AP poll. . .