Illinois is building its NCAA tournament resume one game at a time. This past week saw the Illini knock off prestigious North Carolina and Gonzaga quintets. Coach Bruce Weber likes how the early season is taking shape.
"It's a pretty good win a long way from home against a good team. It gives us a nice mark on our resume. We survived a pretty tough week. And North Carolina defeats Kentucky, which adds a little bit to it."
The Gonzaga result boiled down to two main factors. One, the Illini played sound defense on the Zags, especially stars Steven Gray, Elias Harris and huge center Robert Sacre according to Weber.
"They're tough to guard, and I think we did a great job defending them. D.J. (Richardson) guards Gray most of the time, with a little help from Brandon (Paul) and Billy (Cole). (Gray) gets ten, and I don't know when he's had ten. He had to earn those at the end when they're kind of free and loose. At one point he was 27 points a game and now at 21, one of the best scorers in the country.
"I know (Harris) had his way first half, but I thought second half we did a little better job nullifying him. Just a great overall defensive effort. I thought we fought in the post better. We said it was gonna be a battle for 40 minutes."
The other factor was Illini proficiency from the three point arc. Paul hit two bombs before halftime to give the Illini a 34-28 lead at the break, and the Illini hit nine of their first eleven 3's second half to build a 20 point lead. Illinois finished the game hitting better than 50% of their three point shots.
"Our three point offense came into play, and we shot the ball well," Weber understated. "But they couldn't find us, that was the big thing. Demetri (McCamey) did a great job reading the ball screens, making the right pass, getting guys open."
The game started fast with the teams trading buckets. Gonzaga got up four early, its largest lead of the night, but the Illini fought back. With McCamey nursing two fouls on the bench, the Illini scored eight straight points to produce a 26-22 lead. Paul scored 10 of the last 12 Illini points of the half.
The Zags hit their first couple baskets of the second half, but McCamey sandwiched two free throws between Mike Tisdale threes. Gonzaga began to feed Sacre low each time down the court, and he hit six straight points plus two more buckets after a Richardson Illini three. But Tisdale hit another three, Mike Davis registered a resounding dunk, and Cole swished two straight threes to extend the lead.
Richardson then hit a three and McCamey manufactured two of his own. A Davis dunk extended the lead to 67-47 before the Illini became stagnant and Gonzaga began to fight its way back. The Zags hit 10 straight points before Richardson ended their run with a driving floater as the shot clock was about to expire. The Zags could get no closer than 10 the rest of the way.
Illinois lost in overtime to Gonzaga in the United Center last year, and most of the main participants returned for the rematch. Weber was asked how the Illini have changed in a year.
"We're tougher than we were, and we guard better. Last year we couldn't stop them at the end. I said, 'I don't care if we score or not, let's just stop them.' They had a couple baskets, but we did a good job stopping them down the stretch. I think that's the biggest thing."
There is still plenty to learn. Weber mentions running better offense when shooting is off and learning how to close out games at the end.
"We have pretty good shooters, but we've got to get better in our half court offense movement-wise. When people block your ball screens like they did at the end, then what are we gonna do?
"We didn't read some switches, could have gotten it inside a little bit. We took some quick shots. They all want to go one-on-one, and we've got to get some movement, make them make a mistake. When they gamble, then you get some easy hoops.
"The big thing is we're getting better. That's what we've got to continue to do. We've got to guard better on the offensive end. But tonight we can enjoy it. Good win."
Tisdale and Richardson led the Illini with 15 points each. Paul added 12, McCamey 11 and Davis 10. Cole contributed 8, including an impressive lob dunk that surprised his coach.
"Billy Cole was really important. I didn't know what hit him on the lob dunk. I said, 'Who the heck was that?'"
The Illini were outrebounded badly, 47 to 27. But the totals were much closer down the stretch as the Illini fought harder for boards and loose balls. McCamey tied Deron Williams for third on the all-time Illinois career assist list during the game.
This game was on a neutral court, but there were far more Gonzaga fans. Weber was excited about the number of Illini fans in attendance and singled them out for praise afterward.
"We had a great crowd here. Unbelievable, and they stayed and enjoyed it. They were louder than the Gonzaga crowd. They got us at the United Center last year, and we got them back."
The Illini are now 8-1 on the young season. Weber hopes to see more growth in time for the next game at the Assembly Hall.
"Now we go back home and keep improving for Oakland Wednesday."