Just when you thought the Illini were just going "through the motions" on offense, they are playing the way coach Bruce Weber hoped they would. Most teams can point to one game that could make or break a season. For the Illini I think it was the start of the second half of the Indiana game last week. For the first time all season I saw a group of players defend like no other and run a motion offense along with special set plays the best in any game this season.
Why the change? Players are really buying-in this time. They can see Weber knows what he's talking about. "Right now we are hard to defend because we have five or six guys that could lead us in scoring," said Weber. For weeks Weber has talked about playing better defense. In two consecutive games the Illini held its opponent for nine minutes without a field goal. That's amazing. You can say it was a fluke the first time, but at Minnesota on Sunday it was very impressive because the Gophers started the game 7-7 from the field and didn't let up until the Illini shut them down.
Right now the Illini control their destiny. They were given another chance when Northwestern upset Wisconsin on Saturday. Good teams protect their home turf and steal road wins. The top three teams predicted to win the league this year are the ones playing the best basketball right now. Purdue could be considered in that mix, but with two starters out it's hard to count them as a title contender at this point.
Weber talked about how great the atmosphere will be tonight at Assembly Hall. "It should help our guys playing at home in front of their fans," said Weber.
Let's take a look at some key games in the Big Ten and you will see why I say the Illini control their own destiny:
Wisconsin @ Iowa
Purdue @ MSU
Wisconsin @ Illinois
Wisconsin @ Michigan
Wisconsin @ MSU *
Illinois @ Purdue
These are tough games to play. If there's one team at the bottom of the league you don't want to chalk up as an easy win, it's the Northwestern Wildcats. Just ask Iowa, Wisconsin and our beloved Illini. There are plenty of games left and you can't overlook any of them. These games all become important as the Illini face the second half of the Big Ten schedule.