Illinois had a good team last year but missed out on the NCAA Tournament. Coach Bruce Weber says a big weakness was on defense.
"A year ago, we weren't very good at all. We watched film as a staff this last week or so, and it even makes you more disappointed. I think they realize that. It's been emphasized to our older guys."
Weber tried to preach defense, but his words sometimes fell on deaf ears. Seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Davis were especially inconsistent defensively. Getting a chance to hear from pro scouts this summer about their weaknesses opened some eyes.
"If you talk about NBA, the feedback (Demetri) got, he's got to be a more consistent player. He's got to play both ends of the court. Mike Davis, one of the first things they told him was to become a defensive stopper. Tis has gained the weight, he can run better. Now if he can be more active on defense it's gonna help him.
"All of them have strengths. Demetri's one of the best passers in the country if not the best. Mike Tisdale is one of the best shooters, and Mike Davis is a great rebounder. If they can add that defensive part to their game, it's gonna help them. It's gonna really help us in the long run."
Tisdale practiced against pros this summer with USA Basketball. He gained confidence in his game going against great players. In fall workouts, he and freshman Meyers Leonard get after each other, helping both.
"The best thing for Mike Tisdale is Meyers Leonard," Weber relates. "And the best thing for Meyers Leonard is Mike Tisdale. It's made Mike concentrate every day. He's got somebody banging on him that's just as tall. He can stand up with him because of his strength and weight gain.
"But at the same time he's smarter, he's older. He should beat Meyers every day. Not every day but a lot of the days. He's done that, but Meyers hasn't backed down. If Meyers can learn the game from Mike Tisdale, it's gonna help him.
"If Mike Tisdale can deal with all the physicality he's gonna have to deal with on a daily basis, it's gonna help Mike in the long run. It's a positive thing, there's no doubt about it.
"Now we need them to be backstops to our defense. Both of those guys. If you have size and don't use it, don't block shots or cause problems, it doesn't do you any good to be a force inside on offense.
"Every day Tis takes Meyers to school and teaches him, 'This is how you play, this is what you do.' Meyers is learning but is a step behind. So they have to be our go-to guys, they have to be our leaders. If they can be our strong guys on the defensive end, it will really make it easy on our other guys. Then they can just kind of jump in."
Defense is a team game. Weber has a number of underclassmen who can be good defensive players if they focus on it.
"The sophomores, I thought D.J. (Richardson) was probably our best defensive player last year. Brandon Paul was pretty active. Crandall (Head) has an opportunity to be a very good defensive player. He plays with great energy; it's one of the goals or thoughts we've given him.
"Jereme (Richmond) had a great experience this summer. He found out he could be a defensive stopper with USA basketball. And one of Meyers's strengths is blocking shots.
"We have a chance with our athleticism, our length and hopefully our experience to be a good defensive team. And if you watched any of the workouts, it's definitely something we're emphasizing."
With improved defense comes opportunities for more fast break opportunities. Weber has his players pushing the ball at every opportunity.
"I want to play up-tempo. I wanted to play up-tempo last year; I probably emphasized offense too much. One of the things we've emphasized with Demetri, now we have some other people who can do some things. You don't have to keep the ball in your hands.
"Dayton didn't dribble the ball. They just passed it ahead and ran like crazy. That's where our guys have got to get that mindset. Create stops, run out and get easy buckets by beating them down the court. Use your athleticism. Hopefully that's a good formula for success."
Illini fans are excited about the youngsters. But Weber leaves no doubt as to whose team it is.
"We're gonna be as good as our seniors. If our seniors have great years defensively, we're gonna have a chance to be very good. Now, they can bring the other guys along and not have a lot of pressure on the younger guys. Those guys are gonna be good, and a lot of focus has been given to them, a lot of excitement."
McCamey has a reputation for taking plays off on the defensive end. He has matured a great deal since his humble beginnings.
"Demetri's made a lot of progress since his freshman year. Just his daily work habits, his time management skills. He's made such huge strides. He is one of the best players in the country. He is on the Wooden Watch List, and he should be. Now, can he do it on a consistent basis? That's the big thing. The leadership part of it, he's made big strides."
Davis has also made notable progress since last season. Once known for his tendency to slump his shoulders and pout with imperfect play, Weber says Davis has gained the physical strength and mental confidence to help more consistently on both ends of the floor.
"Body language, not worrying about every shot he misses. He took a charge the other day. That in itself could be a miracle. Let's see if we can get him to do another one."
Davis and Tisdale often worried more about their own games than the needs of the team in the past. Part of that was youthfulness and part was a lack of physical strength and confidence. Both are much improved now according to Weber.
"Those guys are young guys, when you start looking at the age of Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale. You wish ideally they would have redshirted somewhere along the line. It didn't happen so this is it. They've learned a lot. They know this is their time to shine and make the most of their final season."
The seniors finally began to show some leadership the last half of last season, but it hasn't been easy for them. Weber looks for multiple players to share the leadership role.
"You find out a lot about that when you get into the tough games. Who's saying the right things? Who's gonna stand up? I'm not sure it's gonna be one person. I hope it's more by committee.
"Tisdale has made big strides. Mike Davis has really done a nice job maturity-wise. Billy quietly just plugs along and fills a lot of gaps for us. And then D.J. is an energy kind of guy that comes every day. He loves to play, he loves Illinois, he does a great job with recruiting when kids come on campus. So you have a variety of guys. I think it's more by collection than maybe one person."
Weber felt a need to provide positive reinforcement frequently last year for players lacking self-confidence. He tried not to put excess pressure on some players, hoping they would break through their shells that way. The results were mixed.
Now, he knows he must apply more pressure on his team to get the most out of them. There is talent and depth, so Weber wants to bring out the best in everyone by pushing them beyond their limits.
"We've got to talk and explain, but at the same time we've got to be very demanding. I don't know if we have to get in their face, but we've got to be demanding, especially on the defensive part, being active, rebounding.
"We've got to get to the bucket and get boards with the athleticm and length we have. Running the court every time. We've got to make sure they understand how important it is."