The last three games Illinois has played could easily have been dubbed "the most important game of the season" at the time they were played, and in fact many people did, including me. Two weeks ago I ran through the gambit of emotions as Illinois came from behind to defeat Indiana in what must have been the ugliest game of the year; that was until Northwestern walked into West Lafayette and beat Purdue. I was so happy that Tuesday night, but the only thought that kept coming into my head was, "watch these guys go and blow it in Williams Arena, now."
Early on in that Minnesota game, it looked just like the team was going to lose as they had another opportunity to cave as the Gophers started out shooting like they were playing a junior high girl's team. The Illini, thanks to a late-night film session in Deron Williams' room knew the Gophers had jumped out to many early leads in games they lost this season, so they knew they would be able to withstand the rally and get back in the game. The Illini did, keeping Dan Monson winless in his career against Illinois.
Tuesday night in Champaign was probably the most anticipated home game of the year for Illinois fans. Not only was it Paint the Hall Orange night, but Michigan State and ESPN would be in Champaign for the game. The Illini used defense and a crisp offense to dominate the Spartans while Tom Izzo sat on the sidelines in disbelief, effectively throwing in the towel with about fifteen minutes left in the game for the second straight year.
This brings us to Wednesday night, and the Big Ten leading Wisconsin Badgers come into Champaign. As the Illini welcome the Badgers into Champaign, they should and will have revenge on their mind. The game between these two teams in Madison was definitely an embarrassment for everyone associated with Illinois basketball. Devin Harris and Mike Wilkenson made Illinois their personal practice squad in Madison, and they better not do it again.
I will be honest; I am the same person who earlier this year believed that leadership would not be an issue with this Fighting Illini team because Dee Brown was on the roster. Early in the season, we heard Bruce Weber comment that the team did not have a leader, and we were all shocked. Then, in Madison, WI, it all came to a head as the Illini imploded. They were effectively a team without a leader, and this game made it completely obvious to even the casual fan.
A funny thing happened in between Madison, WI, and Bloomington, IN. Deron Williams emerged as the leader of this basketball team, both on and due to reports in the media, off the court. On the court Deron plays two key roles for Illinois: the point guard and the defensive stopper. It is Deron's job to guard the opponent's best offensive player, and set up Illinois' offense. Not only has Deron been Illinois' most consistent offensive threat, but he is also a vocal leader on the floor.
When you look at Deron's last four games, the only thing I can do is look on in amazement. He has averaged 15.25 points, 7.0 assists, and 1.25 steals, with only 2.5 turnovers. It is not coincidental that when he finally returned to game shape after a week's rest thanks to the Big Ten schedule, Illinois started their current four game winning streak.
THE ILLINI DEFENSIVE INTENSITY
It is no coincidence that Illinois' winning streak also started when the Illini decided to make a concerted effort to defend the basket. In the last four games, Illinois has held the opposition to 55.25 points per game, and only Minnesota scored more than sixty. The defensive intensity has picked up, the first sign of a team that has turned the corner.
The Illini defense is now a swarming double-teaming defense that is fun to watch on the court. Sure, the Illini do end up giving up some open jump shots to big men as they double team the guards with the ball at the top of the key, and the rotation is a bit slow. But, this is exactly what this defense is designed to do, force the big men to beat you on the perimeter and create turnovers.
The swarming defense has also keyed some easy points on run out opportunities for the Illini. The great thing about these run outs is when they happen on the road, they are crowd silencers. When they happen at home, they energize the Assembly Hall crowd, who increases their decibel and excitement level.
THE ILLINI OFFENSIVE MOVEMENT
One thing about the Illini offense changed when the winning streak started to happen: the team started playing with their instincts instead of their minds. When a basketball player over thinks on the court, especially on offense, they lose fluidity, and so does the offense. If a player is thinking in his head about where he "has to be" next, they will not be there, and the offense will slow down to a standstill.
Don't get me wrong, I still see problems in every game that are correctable with the Illinois offense, but all in all, the way it is moving now is about where I expected it to be. The big men are now making a few more reads with and without the ball, including their comfortable read of the high-low. The guards are calling for picks on the perimeter and taking the ball to the basket. The Illini, especially Nick Smith and Deron Williams, have also started to play some two-man game with the pick and roll or the pick and pop.
If there is one thing that I can consistently point to about this Illini offense that needs to be corrected, it is the way the big men set screens, and the guards run off them. I noticed the horrific screening earlier in the season, and pointed it out on the message boards in discussions on the game. There have been a few discussions on the boards about why Illinois cannot seem to set solid screens, and the only conclusion we have come to is: it is the guards and big men's fault.
The big men are not setting solid screens, and many times, especially James Augustine and Roger Powell, the big man will roll or pop before even making contact with the defender when they are setting a ball screen. On off the ball screens, the big men will not set up wide, and the guards will not take a jab step to run their defender into the screen. The screening has improved as the season progressed, but it is still an issue, and probably the biggest one with the offense right now.
Paint the Hall Orange night was a huge success, once again. I am glad so many people wore orange, and I know the players were appreciative of it. Orange should be an every day occurrence at Illinois games, home, away, or neutral venue for every fan. I will admit that as a fan, I never wore orange to Assembly Hall until the first Paint the Hall Orange night (actually I did not own an orange Illinois shirt), but I have never worn another color since. Orange is the color of the Fighting Illini that separates us from everyone else in the Big Ten; it is Illinois' and Illinois' alone.
I want to commend leaderDEE11 on the message board for his work at attempting to get everyone in the hall wearing orange every night. Hopefully it will happen, because I know for a fact that the players prefer the fans to wear orange, and I know Assembly Hall looks so much better in one solid color.
I have heard all the excuses why someone cannot wear orange, but they are all that, excuses. An excuse is something you give when you really do not want to do something, so wear orange if even for just three hours, but do it. Orange is easy enough to wear, it may be a bright color, and "ugly", but it is Illinois' color. I wear orange in Kansas City on game days, and now when people wear orange in my group at work, they ask if they are wearing "Illinois Orange." You can buy an orange shirt in Champaign for less than $10; there is no excuse for not wearing orange.
Think Orange. Wear Orange.
- What color will Illinois' jerseys be against Wisconsin? Could the players' pressure on Bruce Weber be enough for them to wear orange again? It might happen, but that decision may come down to whether or not the Wisconsin red away color is too close to Illinois orange. I guess we will have to watch the game tomorrow night to see if the Illini and their fans are decked out in orange.