Tom Crean has a tough job in his first year leading the Hoosiers. Missing almost everyone from last year's team and forced to play many newcomers, Indiana struggles to remain competitive. This is especially true when he goes up against a team playing with peak efficiency like Illinois did Saturday.
"They played a great game from start to finish," Crean stated. "We never matched their toughness or intensity on either end of the court. They're a great ball-moving team as judged by the assists they get. They pass the ball so well. They really know where their people are gonna be. Their motion is one of the best offenses in the country."
Senior guard Trent Meacham led the Illini with 21 points, including 7 of 9 from the three point line. He said the Illini were eager to play this game after a hard week of practice.
"We just wanted to come back out and play. We didn't feel too good coming home after losing to Michigan. It's been a long week of practice since that, so we were excited. We set the tone defensively, and we made shots to add on to that. You always look pretty good when you make shots."
Meacham may have understated his value on this day, but Crean did not.
"Trent Meacham has been one of my favorites for a long time. It was a crushing blow to Brian Gregory's program (Dayton) when he lost him. The kid is good. To me, he was always a Travis Diener type of guard who I enjoyed coaching so much at Marquette. He certainly proved that today. He is an excellent basketball player, and they have a team full of them."
Illinois coach Bruce Weber was pleased with his team's 51% shooting including 52% from three. But he was more pleased with the defensive intensity and the team's ability to keep adding to the lead throughout the game.
"We played pretty good basketball. The thing that pleased me most was how hard we played. We were disappointed at Michigan because we didn't play very hard, the way we did in winning 7 straight. That was our emphasis this week. Weakside defense, getting steals and blocked shots, just helping teammates by communicating. Just playing Illinois basketball. They reacted to it pretty well.
"I was pleased we not only got off to a good start, we continued it. We've had trouble at home maintaining. We challenged them to at least win the second half. We didn't expect to win by a big margin, but we did win (31-25). At least they kept playing basketball and trying to improve."
Sophomore guard Demetri McCamey reiterated Weber's words.
"When we looked at the Michigan game, we weren't pressuring the ball on defense or getting into the passing lanes. Coach Weber stressed that throughout the week, to get into the passing lanes and get steals. Everyone came with high energy and maintained that for both the first and second half."
One thing that helped the Illini was the tremendous crowd. Playing before a full house and an electric atmosphere inspired the team according to Mike Davis.
"I've always said we have the best fans in America. It got loud a couple times. It's great to have the fans back. In the Big 10, we're gonna need them."
It also helped to have two of Illinois' greatest teams back on campus for reunions. The 1949 and 1984 Big 10 Champs were both recognized during the game. And coach Weber took advantage of their presence to ask a couple of their members to speak with the team before the game.
"It was a special day with the '49 and '84 championship teams here. Coach (Dick) Nagy talked to our team this morning, and then we had Bruce Douglas in before the game. The thing Bruce talked about was being a great teammate, a great leader, leaving it on the court.
"Bruce could dominate a game and not score. He might have 8 or 9 assists, 6 steals and guard the best player. This was one of the best players ever, and he's saying you can't focus on wins and losses but just play basketball. He has left a legacy, not only here but in his life. I think our guys reacted to that pretty well."
Illinois dominated from the start. They made the first 8 points, one of three 8 point runs in the game. And at 8-2, they went on a 13 point run that included 3 Meacham threes, a McCamey steal and dunk and later a three of his own, and a Dominique Keller driving layup. Illinois' stifling defense never let up, leaving the youthful Hoosiers grasping for straws.
It was 45-20 at the half, but the Illini continued to fight throughout the second half. Four players were in double figures. Joining Meacham were Keller with 15 including three 3's, and Davis and McCamey with 12 each. The Illini dished out 17 assists while having only 9 turnovers. And they forced 19 Hoosier turnovers, which they converted into 31 points. Mike Tisdale had a career high 4 blocked shots among Illinois' total of 9.
Champaign product Verdell Jones, III, scored 10 points for Indiana in his first return home. He struggled in the first half but popped a 3 and added a couple nice driving layups between defenders in the second stanza. Verdell added 3 assists to go with 6 turnovers. Washington, Illinois, freshman Matt Roth had only one shot attempt in 13 minutes for the Hoosiers.
There is no better method of evaluating a team than to listen to the opposing team coach's remarks. Crean was especially eloquent in explaining why Illinois is a tough opponent.
"We didn't want to come out and overpressure this team because they have so many guys. Going into this game, you've got McCamey, Meacham and (Chester) Frazier with 34 assists and 2 turnovers in two Big 10 games.
"It was not in our interest to come out and chase them around and allow open passes to the basket. That was not gonna be a positive for us. They're too good at their motion offense. They curl, they screen extremely well, and they slip screens extremely well. When you have a great passing team that trusts one another like that, you can't stay in anything too long.
"The guards do so much, but with Davis and Tisdale, they don't have to just throw it into one guy like last year. They can move these guys so much. They can play in the post, they can play at 19 feet. And then you bring in a guy like Keller, who has a great game. They can beat you a lot of different ways. Davis and Tisdale allow them to do that. They have that length, which is effective on offense and defense, it's effective with rebounding, and they're very good shooters."
Weber singled out his senior leaders while praising team chemistry.
"They get along. They went through a lot of tough times, which brought them closer together. Our seniors don't have any ego. Calvin (Brock) didn't have to get involved today because our other guys did so well, and yet he was happy, cheering, talking trash in the locker room. Trent has been solid. Chester's kind of been our Bruce Douglas, and that's really helped us. I asked those guys to be consistent. They've done that, and that's carried over to the other guys. The seniors have created a mindset of winning."
A big win against an old nemesis is fun for the team and fans alike. But it is just one game in a series of difficult matchups. Michigan is followed by a trip to powerhouse Michigan State, who conquered Kansas today. The Illini can't rest on their laurels, as Meacham explained.
"Coach Weber is intense. He wants to get every game. That's what makes him a great coach. He's gonna come into each game with great intensity, and we've got to do that as a team. Now, we've got Michigan coming here, and that's gonna be a tough one."