Sometimes statistics and superlatives can be misleading. For example, with Tuesday's 59-42 home win over Iowa, Illinois is off to its first 2-0 Big Ten start since the 2004-05 team that spent most of the season at No. 1 in the nation and rolled all the way to the NCAA title game.
For anyone who has seen the Illini play this year, the only similarity between this team and that team is the color scheme. At least until Tuesday night, when Illinois held Iowa to its lowest point total since Jan. 12, 1984.
For the first time this year, the Illini looked as interested in excelling on defense as they did in excelling on offense. Iowa hit a 3-pointer 1 minute and 23 seconds into the game, then didn't get its next point until 10:38 remained in the first half. That desire is something all of Bruce Weber's Illinois teams have had in common.
"Everybody played hard," junior guard Demetri McCamey told the Daily Herald. "We were denying passing lanes. We looked like a good defensive team tonight, and hopefully it'll carry over to the next game and the game after that."
Ah, that last sentence is the important one. As Illinois prepares for its Saturday trip to Indiana, everyone will be waiting to see if this defensive-oriented team will show up again. Considering Illinois surrendered at least 80 points in the three games previous to the Iowa whipping, it's anyone's guess whether it will happen.
"I hope it's all added up," Weber said. "But unless we do it Saturday, it doesn't matter. And that's the consistency we need."
ILLINOIS 59, IOWA 42: Illini coach Bruce Weber shook up his starting lineup, and the new starters and new subs all responded in a resounding Big Ten win over the Hawkeyes on Tuesday night in Champaign. Illinois limited Iowa to 30 percent shooting and the Hawkeyes' smallest point total since a 42-39 win over Northwestern on Jan. 12, 1984.
Juniors Jeff Jordan and Bill Cole made their first career starts as junior point guard Demetri McCamey and freshman guard D.J. Richardson hit the bench for the first time this season. Jordan contributed five assists without a turnover, while Cole delivered four points, four rebounds and two blocks.
McCamey, who still played 28 minutes, delivered nine points and seven assists without a turnover. Richardson (17 points) was the game's only double-figure scorer, as he drilled five of seven from 3-point range. Junior forward Mike Davis, who entered the night as the Big Ten's leading rebounder with 10.4 per game, tied his season low with five boards.
--In the Illini's Big Ten opener against Northwestern on Dec. 30, the Wildcats drilled open 3-pointers on four of their first five possessions to break out to a 12-4 lead. Illinois eventually trailed by nine at halftime and 10 early in the second half before rallying for an 89-83 overtime win.
While that story ended well, Illinois' high-profile nonconference battle with Gonzaga at the United Center on Jan. 2 did not. The Illini were playing with more rest and before 21,000 eager fans, but Gonzaga bolted out to a 32-11 lead less than 10 minutes into the game. Illinois rallied to force another overtime only to fall 85-83.
"I think we've probably only had about two to three good starts the whole year," said junior guard Demetri McCamey.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber's potential solution? Giving junior guard Jeff Jordan his first career start in place of freshman D.J. Richardson.
Now, skipping ahead to the screwy end-game possessions. Against Northwestern, the Illini had the ball for the last shot in regulation with the game tied. Even though Illinois used two timeouts to set up things, it wound up failing to get the ball inside the 3-point arc and actually turned it over with two seconds left.
That experience followed the last possession of the Gonzaga game. Weber, noting Northwestern changed defenses after each timeout three days earlier, decided not to use his final timeout and stuck with the plan drawn up during a previous timeout. Illinois didn't run the play as designed and wound up with Brandon Paul's long 3-pointer that missed to end the game.
"The last play, that's my fault," Weber said in the Daily Herald. "We drew something up at the end. I wish Demetri (McCamey) would've pushed it a little quicker. Once I saw it, I tried to call timeout and I was just a second too late, probably."
Then there's the sloppy defense. Northwestern ripped Illinois from long range, then Gonzaga kept pounding the ball inside and crushed the Illini's slender duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Tisdale fouled out in 11 minutes against the Zags.
--Forward Dominique Keller, the only senior on the roster, delivered his finest game as an Illini in the 85-83 loss to Gonzaga. Forced into action due to Mike Tisdale's extreme foul trouble, Keller played a career-high 34 minutes and produced career-bests with 22 points and nine rebounds. He also drilled a 3-pointer to send the game into overtime.
--In neutral site losses to Georgia and Gonzaga, Illinois was whipped inside by stronger post players. The Illini don't challenge the guys who are passing into the post, and then 7-foot-1 Mike Tisdale and 6-9 Mike Davis aren't powerful enough to keep people from going where they want. The Illini also aren't doing an effective job of doubling in the post. Weber might need to give redshirt junior Richard Semrau, a forgotten guy at the end of the bench, a chance to play a few minutes now and again.
ON THE SPOT: Illinois delivered its finest defensive effort of the year against Iowa, but its hard work on that end of the floor (42 points allowed, 30 percent shooting) might have impaired its ability to score at the other end. The Illini missed six of their first seven shots in the first half. Then they fared even worse to start the second half, when they missed nine of their first 10 shots.
Since new starters Jeff Jordan and Bill Cole aren't offensive powerhouses -- but coach Bruce Weber might be loath to take them out of the lineup since they bring energy to the team -- that puts pressure on big men Mike Davis (12.4 ppg) and Mike Tisdale (11.7 ppg) to put up points early.
QUOTE TO NOTE:"I don't know if I've been so upset after a loss. It sucks. I don't like to lose. A great crowd. It's no fun. I mean, it's pretty simple." -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber, expressing his frustrations in the Daily Herald after the 85-83 overtime loss to Gonzaga on Jan. 2 in front of 21,000 orange-clad fans at the United Center in Chicago.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
SEASON RECAP: Illinois put together a nonconference slate designed to be a perfect balance between providing a strong RPI number and providing a terrific record. Instead, the Illini finished 8-5 during nonconference play as they lost all five of their neutral-site games (Utah, Bradley, Georgia, Missouri and Gonzaga). This dilemma forces Illinois to win a few more Big Ten games than it planned -- and it can't afford any early slipups because the schedule is backloaded with the league's better teams.
PLAYER ROTATION: Usual Starters -- F Mike Davis, C Mike Tisdale, G Brandon Paul, G D.J. Richardson, G Demetri McCamey. Key Subs F Bill Cole, F Dominique Keller, PG Jeff Jordan.
Missouri 81, Illinois 68
Illinois 89, Northwestern 83 (OT)
Gonzaga 85, Illinois 83 (OT)
Illinois 59, Iowa 42
at Indiana, Saturday, Jan. 9
vs. Penn State, Tuesday, Jan. 12
at Michigan State, Saturday, Jan. 16
vs. Purdue, Tuesday, Jan. 19
IN FOCUS: Illinois' coaching staff has been trying to win games and bring along freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul at the same time. However, coach Bruce Weber has decided their initial tentativeness contributes to his team's continual slow starts. Richardson, who owns a 10.6 points per game while starting each of the first 14 games, could be the odd man out of the lineup as Weber looks for more defense and intensity out of his guards.
--Junior G Jeff Jordan quit the team in May to focus on his studies, but he returned in October when the itch hit him. Jordan's minutes and productivity have risen steadily since his return, and he earned his first career start Tuesday in Illinois' 59-42 home win over Iowa.
Jordan took just one shot during his 23 minutes, but he ran the team nicely and dogged Iowa's point guards from the moment they caught the inbounds pass. Jordan finished with five assists, four rebounds, one steal and no turnovers, and he could earn another start Saturday at Indiana.
--Junior G Demetri McCamey's 46-game streak as a starter ended Tuesday, but he produced just like a starter in his 28-minute stint. McCamey came off the bench four minutes into the game and soon hit a 3-pointer.
However, coach Bruce Weber was more impressed by the way McCamey shared the ball and worked harder at the defensive end. McCamey finished with nine points (on six shots) and seven assists without a turnover. He remains the Big Ten's assist leader with 5.7 per game.
--Junior F Bill Cole was such an afterthought in his first two seasons, he played a total of 157 minutes. But the skilled and slender Cole decided to become a hustling glue guy this year, and it has paid off with 16 minutes per game. Cole earned his first career start Tuesday and produced four points, four rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 23 minutes.
--Freshman G Joseph Bertrand (knee) remains on target to redshirt, even after Alex Legion's departure caused a small gap in the guard rotation.
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