Instead of distracting the team with his attitude, Nick Smith has stepped up strong and hit clutch jumpers and developed post moves. But, the most important improvement has been that the Fighting Illini has kicked the defensive intensity up a notch. Read here for more on the Illini's tenacious D.
Before Nolan Richardson's went crazy and started wearing cream-colored suits, his Arkansas teams were known for their high-pressure defense and their opponents knew they were in for "Forty Minutes of Hell." While Illinois is not at that level yet, Minnesota and Michigan State got a taste of Bruce Weber's "Thirty-Five Minutes of Hell."
It all started innocently enough against the Michigan Wolverines. In front of the CBS cameras, Illinois held the Wolverines to 35% shooting from the field and caused 17 turnovers. Luther Head and Roger Powell each had 4 steals and five different Illini blocked Michigan shots. Billy Packer would not have been able to say that anybody in orange and blue was dogging it on defense.
In the next game against Indiana, the improved Illinois defense served notice to the rest of the Big Ten that the road to the conference championship would include a stop on the corner of First Street and Kirby Avenue in Champaign. Playing on ESPN during "Rivalry Week", the Illini got down big in the first half, but put the clamps on the Hoosiers in the next twenty minutes. Illinois shot 39%, which would normally spell doom, but not when you hold your opponents to 31% from the field and hold them without a field goal for the final 9 minutes and 53 seconds of the game. In their comeback win, the Illini showed they could play defense on the road with the same intensity they play with at home.
On a cold Minnesota Sunday, the Illini defense was red-hot, after the first five minutes. Once again, the Illini got off to a slow start and the Gophers took a 22-7 lead with 15:22 left to play in the first half. That's when the Illini buckled down and brought out the defense that we all know and love. The Illini's spurt ability was evident during a 13-0 first half run. Illinois forced eight turnovers that were turned into fast break points in the second half. While it was great that Illinois could go into Williams Arena and take it to a poor Minnesota team, the skeptics wondered if the Illini would be able to handle their next assignment.
Amongst a sea of Orange, Tom Izzo brought his first-place Michigan State Spartans to the Assembly Hall and tried to avoid being shutdown by the Illini. I think we all know how that turned out. While the Spartans got out to a 7-2 lead after the first five minutes, Illinois got back into their defensive behavior. The big men held MSU star Paul Davis to just eight points and Shannon Brown was the only Spartan to score in double figures with 12 points. The defense caused 15 turnovers and James Augustine led the way with three blocked shots. All of this was done is dazzling high-definition in front of a national television audience. While the fans painted the Hall orange, the Illini painted the Spartans black and blue.
With the recent strong play of Illinois, hopes and expectations are high once again. But, Coach Weber and the guys know that the hopes and expectations drop if they don't take care of business against Wisconsin. Judging by their recent performances, the Fighting Illini should be up to the task.