If Illinois wants to cement itself as a Big Ten title contender alongside Michigan State, Ohio State and Purdue, defense is the key. (OK, a sharpshooting Brandon Paul and an under-control Demetri McCamey also would help.)
Last season was the least efficient defense during Bruce Weber’s tenure. It wasn’t bad – 92.7 points per 100 possessions – but it was a far cry from the previous seasons when Illinois was among the top 20 teams.
Right on cue, the Illini brought it in the first half of their opening win against UC Irvine. Cue the tempo-free analysis from the Big Ten Geeks:
… the Illini allowed just 0.49 points per possession. The Anteaters shot just 23 percent from the field and turned it over on nearly a third of their possessions. Weber has been emphasizing defense in early practices, and it showed in this first half. The length and athleticism of the Illini was on full display, and they were playing like a legitimate top 15 team.
Illinois knew it was playing well, too.
“We were intimidating defensively in the first half,” Weber said. “We were all over the place.”
“We came out feisty and fighting, diving for balls and stuff like that,” said Paul.
Except it only lasted a half. After UC Irvine reeled off 25 points in 10 minutes during the second half, things looked a little more like 2009-10. The Geeks say Illinois ended the game allowing .86 points per possession, which is better than last season, but a far cry from the first half and likely won’t be good enough against Big Ten foes.
Good thing it’s November.