It seems like it was just yesterday that people were frustrated with Bruce Weber's team, and especially coach. The players weren't buying in, the fans were thinking a possible NIT berth, and Illinois just wasn't looking good. Something has happened in the past few weeks that makes me think that this Illinois ship has righted the course and on it's way to possibly a very special season. And it all started with a little defense.
Last week it was tough to tell if Illinois was really playing good defense or if the teams they played, Indiana and Minnesota, were just poor. Against MSU, Illinois proved that they have picked up the intensity a notch and are taking pride in their defense. Coach Weber is very pleased with the progress saying "we've made major strides in the last 3 weeks going from about 7th or 8th in the league defensively to the top last week."
Weber noticed a weakness in MSU that others have commented on, and he wanted to expose it. "The one thing they don't have is a true point guard. You can really pressure and disrupt them," Weber said. And disrupt them they did. Michigan State jumped out to an early 7-2 lead but quickly became suffocated by the Illinois defense. Luther Head then got the Illini rolling offensively by knocking down 3 crucial three pointers in the 1st half. The Illini went on a 33-13 spurt to close the half and didn't allow a MSU field goal for almost eight minutes from the 5:41 mark of the 1st half to around the 18:00 mark of the 2nd half. At that point they gave MSU a blow they could never recover from.
Illinois was aided by a huge orange colored crowd. The crowd was lively and gave Illinois a big boost of energy. "I was really fired up, all the guys were," said Illinois star Deron Williams of his thoughts before the game. Weber said he talked to his players about wearing the orange uniforms saying "lets have them see orange everywhere."
Michigan State only had 1 guy in double figures while Illinois had three with Luther Head leading the way with 17, James Augustine chipped in 16, and Deron Williams turned in another steady performance of 15 points and 6 assists.
Weber was extremely impressed with his guard play. "Deron is playing very good basketball, and then Dee's energy is so important. They kind of play off each other. Dee's pressure and push, Deron's smooth savvy and understanding how to play, and then if you have Luther playing at that type of level I think it's very difficult to defend us."
It was also hard for Michigan State to defend Augustine. The sophomore big man is feeling healthy and he came out as Weber claimed "like an animal." Augustine posted big numbers with 16 points, 11 rebounds, and 3 blocked shots while outplaying Paul Davis.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo was visibly disappointed in his teams effort and inability to play defense in such a big game. "It's a shame that such an important game for both teams was so one sided," said Izzo.
Coach Weber on the other hand is glad to get this huge victory under his belt so he can get his team focused on Wisconsin. It will be interesting to see if the layoff hurts or hinders the Illini. Weber and his team think it will be good for them to get a breather and heal some injuries. "If we're not ready for Wisconsin we don't deserve to win. We'll get a little rest here this week, we'll watch film and see what we can continue to work on, and then get ready early next week for Wisconsin," said Weber.
Illinois is back in this Big 10 title race. No longer do the shouts of "Big 10 Champs" coming from the Illinois huddles seem unreasonable. The players and coaches are on the same page and really enjoying each other. The rest of the Big 10 should be concerned.
Illini Grade Report:
Backcourt- Luther Head was again phenomenal at home. He seems to shoot so much better at Assembly Hall. Deron Williams and Dee Brown complemented each other brilliantly. These guards are so talented and then you throw McBride in there for some good defense while the guys get a breather and you have a top notch backcourt.
Frontcourt- Augustine bounced back big time in this game when they needed him most. Powell played streaky but still posted decent shooting numbers. Nick Smith struggled a little bit but did have a nice block on Paul Davis.
Bench- The Illini bench continues to impress. It's not so much that they put up big numbers, but that they don't hurt the team when they come in. They're unselfish with the minutes Weber is giving them.
Overall- Everything is coming together at a good time. Everyone understands their role and are playing to their strengths.