Illinois coach Bruce Weber has always been known for his hard-nosed defense. Opponents always hated playing against Weber-coached teams because they knew they would be well-scouted and were in for a tough, physical matchup.
However, this season the opposite was true. Most teams played their normal offense against the Illini. But if that method couldn't guarantee victory, they always knew they could penetrate at will for short shots and/or free throws. Most Illini players found defending penetration difficult, due to their lack of lateral quickness and a general failure of the help defense to rotate.
Reports emanating from last week's first postseason team workout indicate more intense and competitive defensive drills. Weber wants to get back to his roots for next season.
"The biggest thing is we've relied on aggressive pressure. It's the blueprint of our defense. It started with Coach (Gene) Keady, we carried it to SIU, Matt (Painter) has carried it to Purdue. That's been the key to it. It's something other people don't do."
Defensive statistics can be misleading, but Weber is not happy with the number of points given up this last season. It pales in comparison with his other teams.
"A couple of those years, we were offensively challenged so we used the shot clock more. This year we didn't use the shot clock as much, so that's another reason you might have more points. Even my second year, we gave up more points, but we scored more too. We were much more efficient offensively."
Weber entertained a zone and practiced it early last fall. As bad as the man-to-man was, the zone was worse. Weber didn't have time to teach one defense let along two.
In addition, most of the players had little interest or aptitude for defense. The 2008-09 team had a lockdown defender in Chester Frazier, who could neutralize most opponents from point guards to star forwards. Weber didn't have that this year.
"I think D.J. (Richardson) will become that kind of guy, but we don't have enough guys to do it. We've had to really back off our pressure. The other thing is we have guys who are really focused on shooting the basketball. We probably have too many offensive-minded guys, and defense isn't as important to them. It definitely has taken a toll."
Richardson was named Freshman Of The Year in the Big 10, but he didn't make the All-Defensive Team.
"I was disappointed. I thought he had a chance. People go by stats. Who had blocked shots, maybe steals and things like that. If you really studied it, D.J. did a pretty good job as a freshman to guard Evan Turner, the player of the year, to guard Talor Battle, Manny Harris, Trevon Hughes.
"Just go down the all-conference teams, and he was the guy who had to guard them. He didn't totally shut people down like Chester did, but he did a very admirable job on all those guys. I've got to believe he got some votes."
Richardson's play was a catalyst for the team, but even he lost confidence at times.
"The guys began to feed off his energy, and he's improved. His play-hard chart numbers have overtaken Billy (Cole). He was way down at the beginning, and that was something I challenged him on. That's what I thought he would give us."
Another area of concern for Weber was a lack of offensive rebounds. Few players followed their shots, and fewer still attacked the glass for putbacks. Even when the Illini obtained rebounds at their own end, they didn't put the ball in the hole when given a chance. Weber needs his athletes to be more aggressive and dominant.
"We get them, but don't go up strong. I say, 'Take it through the snot box.' Shot fake, go right through and get a foul. Make people pay. Our guys just don't like it.
"Brandon Paul has to learn to use his body. He gets in there but then tries to use some contorted shot and avoids contact instead of taking it at the backboards, taking it on the rim. Now they have no choice. They either block it or they foul. That's one thing he's got to learn. Even D.J. is worried about contact instead of getting it on the rim."
The Illini were woefully lacking in free throw opportunities. A general unease with contact gave them few chances to get fouled. Mike Davis posted up a couple times in the Wisconsin loss at home and even drove to the basket once and got fouled. But he much prefers a fadeaway jumper to physical contact. Most of the others are the same way.
"We're a jump-shooting team," Weber reminds. "Do I like it, no. I think Brandon Paul can add a lot to it. I wish Tis (Mike Tisdale) would go inside more."
Still, despite all the ups and downs of the season, 21-15 and 10-8 in the conference is respectable if not outstanding. At times, Illinois showed glimpses of being a great team, if only they could have found that level consistently. As Weber reminds, the last 8 games of the conference schedule were their ultimate downfall.
"Their personality as a team can be trying at times. But at the same time, we are a very good team. We've shown it, we've beaten some of the top teams in the country. We've been exciting all year. We played a very difficult schedule.
"Down the stretch, when we needed a game where we didn't have to play perfect to win, we weren't able to get that. We knew it would be hard, but until you go through it, it's really tough to deal with."
With most everyone back and a group of excellent newcomers joining the team this summer, Weber hopes the mistakes of this past season will motivate his players to a peak level next year. It all starts with toughness and defense.