Q: How do you beat a team with no weaknesses?
STEVE ALFORD: It's not easy. Obviously, I think they're the best team in our league and right now the best team in the country. They've just done everything right. You look at their schedule, the opponents they've beaten, and it's phenomenal. This is just a very good basketball team playing at a very high level. We know we're going to have to do everything right to have a chance in the end in this one. I think we're capable, I don't think we're not capable of, but obviously it's a very tall order for us.
Q: How do you keep Erek out of foul trouble?
SA: That's hard. I think he's just got to continue to work on it. I thought this last game, after watching the tape, I think he got a couple tough breaks. They got him in foul trouble. It's one of those things that the more not just the officials but everyone around him understand what a phenomenal shot blocker he is. It's just like your good defenders, when they get the reputation of being a good defender, they get away with being a little more physical than those guys that can't guard, and get the reputation that way. I think his reputation has continued to grow; he only played 11-12 minutes and still had 3 blocks. We need to find a way; maybe it's getting him out a little earlier if he gets that quick (foul) and getting him some more rest. He's just got to continue to work on footwork. He's been in foul trouble a couple of games; we haven't gotten him on track in Big Ten play, that's obvious. There's been a little bit of a difference in how we play, when he hadn't been as instrumental, as active as what he had been earlier. I really thought in the Minnesota game, he had that bounce back, two assists, and no turnovers. I thought he really was energized in that game and ready to go and just got in a tough flow because of foul trouble
Q: He seems susceptible to ball fakes.
SA: Yeah, at times. Normally, he's not. Normally, he's had impeccable timing. We worked all week on that because Hagen is very good at showing fakes. I think if anything it tells you the talent that (Jeff) Hagen has with the basketball, his fakes are that good. Normally that's not Erek. Erek usually doesn't get that because he knows he's long and has great timing. That's what a shot blocker does, he waits until you jump, but in this game, you're right. Hagen got him off his feet a couple of times and got him in some tough spots.
Q: Do you think you'll face (Nick) Smith some this Thursday?
SA: I would think we'll see him some. He's hurt us in the past; he hurt us over there last year. I think he was 10 for 10 from the FT and really hurt us. They've got other issues that we've got to defend first, so I don't think Smith will be in the (starting) lineup, but we'll definitely see Smith before the night's over. He's played well against us. Erek played well over there last year. They are good match-ups, I like the backcourt match-ups, and there is a lot of intrigue there with that match up. I think (Roger) Powell (Jr.) is dynamite inside for them, and that matches up well with Brunner, then you've got the match up of Augustine and Erek. You look at the starters; those are some great match-ups.
Q: Is Illinois toughest place in the league to play?
SA: I think right now. Obviously, that goes in cycles, but just in the past few years, the places we've got into, that's as difficult as it gets. You've got the students that surround the floor, so the students get ideal seating, and you've got the whole place dressed in orange, so it's a pretty exciting environment.
Q: Are Jeff and Adam in a little bit of a shooting slump?
SA: I don't think so. I think those guys worry about it. They worry about it a lot more than I do. Adam got frustrated yesterday in practice. I said "You can miss all the shots you want, just work on getting that shot. Work on understanding how you move to get that shot. If you're standing, that's what bothers me; we want you shooting the basketball." These are two guys that can really shoot it. So I'm not worried about their shooting as much as I am what type of shot they get and how they go about getting it. Those are the two things that really interest me the most. As I told both of them, "you didn't have very good shooting nights against Minnesota, but you both really played well". I thought the job that Adam did on (Brent) Lawson and the job that Jeff did on (Aaron) Robinson were big keys for us. Obviously what Pierre did to (Vincent) Grier, but if we can have our guards do that in the three guard match up every night, we're going to be in pretty good shape. I thought all three really defended well, and Mike did a great job coming off the bench. Looking at their spirits I think Jeff and Adam have been fine. I think the worst thing you can do is think about having a bad shooting game here, two shooting games there. It's really about shot selection, and when they get good shots, more times than not, they make them.
Q: You said the other day on the teleconference that you thought they did get good shots.
SA: I think for the most part, this was a game where they did get good shots, they just didn't go in. There are going to be nights like that, when that happens, you've got to rely on your defense. I thought both those guys did an outstanding job. I thought that was Jeff's best defensive game of the year and Adam has been solid in a lot of games, and Adam was solid again in this one, defensively.
Q: Sometimes when guys aren't shooting the ball well, that can affect the rest of their game.
SA: I think we've only had one, that might have been our second game of shooting the ball in the 30s. We've shot the ball at a high level all year, and this was our worst shooting performance other than the free throw line of the year. Yet we still had three double digit leads, we lead the entire game, we never trailed, we made free throws down the stretch. You want to be able to prove that you can win when the shot's not going down. The shot didn't go down. There wasn't a starter in our lineup that shot 50% in that game. For that to happen and still win and still control the game pretty much start to finish is a good tribute to what we did defensively. I though that was the biggest thing we did against Minnesota, we really guarded for 40 minutes.
Q: What is it that Illinois has done to separate itself from the pack the last 28 games?
SA: I think the roll they got on last year was really impressive; they started off slow in the Big Ten and win their last 9 or 10 in a row to win a league championship. Now you return that entire team they've really settled into a nice 8 man rotation. There are some pretty good players not in the rotation on that bench. They've really settled into a nice rotation, everyone knows their role, they know what they need to do, and everyone has matured. Guys like Luther Head, where they've come from their freshman year who I thought was a player who was a little out of control, and didn't really understand the flow of the basketball game. To now being a player who, in our minds, may be the most difficult match up because he can shoot it, he's very athletic, he really defends, and he has really matured into a player that understands leadership qualities. It's just the maturation of a team who tasted championship last year and is trying to take that one notch further and they've gained a lot of momentum. Oregon, Gonzaga, they've beaten some really good basketball teams and some good names that they've got a lot of momentum going into the Big Ten season, and now they've started off well.
Q: Does Coach Weber do a lot of the same stuff he did at Southern?
SA: It's hard for me to remember what he did exactly. I coached against Bruce his first two years at Southern, it's hard to remember, I've seen so much tape from hat point on, of different teams, it's hard to remember really what he did at southern. I would imagine it's a lot of similarities to what he did there, just personnel changes, and they've got terrific personnel. I think there's a little more ball screening with what he's doing at Illinois that what he did at Southern, all the principles are pretty much the same, offensively and defensively.
Q: How about the dimensions that Dee Brown brings?
SA: There are very few players as quick with the ball as Dee is. In transition, I think is where you need to start with Illinois. If you can't control transition, it's going to be a long night for you. You control transition by taking care of the basketball and getting good shots. That's got to be our most important thing in this game offensively is take care of the ball. I think that's the most phenomenal stat they have. They way they take care of the ball. You have a team that is very athletic, get up and down the floor, but they're about +170 on the year of assists over turnovers, and that's a phenomenal stat.
Q: A lot of Illini fans are talking about (James) Augustine or (Deron) Williams, when are they going to come alive. They seem to be there, don't they?
SA: Williams is a terrific player, and I think he controls the team. Fans are like that, somebody has an off shooting night, that's been the tough thing with Jeff. We kept telling everybody "He's not going to shoot 60 percent from 3; it's just not going to happen. It's too difficult." All of a sudden now if they're not doing that every game, something's wrong. Deron is a tremendous player, the loss of weight last year, actually I think somebody like that, and an injury helped him. Post-injury, he's been terrific, and again a very difficult match up for us.
Q: Did Seth earn some more minutes with is play on Saturday?
SA: I think he's earned the respect to look at it. I think it's still going to vary on the type of big men we play. You saw a game like that where we play Minnesota, who has legit centers, legit 'fives', which bodes well for Seth. If all of a sudden it's like Michigan who has, without Graham Brown, they've got the athletic big who can really move around, I don't know if Seth's ready for that. Mow that Graham Brown's back there, I think that's a match up that's good for him. Can he guard a Nick Smith? That would be a question mark. Nick likes to go out on the floor a little bit. He's got the attention, and hopefully he's got the attention of our other bigs that now they're looking over their shoulder if they're not producing. What happens in a game like that, is when you have a freshman center who can produce that way, it at least gives me some confidence that if someone is not getting the job done, we can go with Seth. He's excited about that, he's enthused right now, and working hard to get those kind of minutes every game.
Q: Dan Monson said on the teleconference a couple of weeks ago, that you guys were in a coaches meeting, you said something that angered Keady, and Keady blamed Monson for it. Do you remember any of that? (Laughs from the media)
SA: If anybody should get blamed for anything, it's Monson. It had something to with something on a Nike trip, about knowing who our Big Ten rep was for the NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches), it was not knowing who our big ten rep was. Apparently at the time, it might have been coach Keady. Dan agreed with me that he didn't know that. Then Coach Keady called and got mad that we had brought this up at the Nike meeting, and he (laugh) ripped Dan and didn't say anything to me, and Dan took offense to that. I said well, that's the way it should be. He should rip you and leave me alone. It wasn't anything negative towards Coach Keady, it was just the way our organization was not quite as organized as it should have been nothing to do with coach Keady. We're excited to have coach in here; there have been a lot of good coaches in this league. He has pioneered a lot of neat things in this league, to be in the league as long as he's been, and be at one school. What he's done for Purdue has been amazing. I've told this story I think at Big Ten media day, my idea of somebody that has as much as he has. I committed to Indiana prior to my junior year, Purdue and Indiana are bitter rivals, and yet going into my senior year, he has my father and I come over to do his summer basketball camp. I'll never forget that, because here's somebody that's an in-state kid, ends up choosing Indiana, and a year later he still has us come over and speak at his camp. That's just something that he has always been about, the game and about the players more than it has been about other things. I really appreciate what he's done for the game. Hopefully he can really enjoy retirement because he definitely deserves it.
Q: Did he recruit you, send you letters?
SA: Yeah, my father had coached Jerry Sichting who went to Purdue, so we know a lot about Purdue. I had it in my mind a long time as a little guy to play for coach knight. So once coach showed some interest, I knew that was where I was going to go. I've always had the utmost respect for Coach Keady. There were very few teams that guarded me any harder or made life tougher for me than what his defending guards did. I always thought he did things the right way, and the achievements he has, you can look back and know that he's done it the right way, with great integrity and character, and I think that's always good for our game.
Q: Are you going to honor him in any way?
SA: (Quickly) Oh yeah. We'll do that on Saturday. We've got that in the works right now.
Q: Not going to reveal what you're planning?
SA: Not yet, we've called and asked some questions, we've called and asked some questions so now we're just trying to figure all that out and plan it right now.
Q: Do you think that Purdue's poor start has anything to do with a transition phase between Coach Keady and the new coach?
SA: No, I don't think so, because Matt is a Purdue guy, and he played for Coach Keady. So I don't think it's transition as much as it's just been they lose some key guards, I thought the Lowe kid was as good as it gets in terms of toughness and understanding Keady basketball. So you have some young people in there, some inexperience, the (Carl) Landry kid has really come on into someone you've really got to pay attention to. They've just had a tough time scoring with the ball, they're still guarding you like crazy, and we just hope they don't pick our game to all of a sudden start scoring because we know it's going to be a slugfest defensively.
Q: How difficult is it, with 2 games in 3 days, and first game against the number one team in the nation?
SA: I think it's a very difficult week for us because we've got to travel and play the top team in the country then less than 48 play a team like Purdue. Purdue plays tonight, so they're getting two extra days rest before they come in here. It's definitely not a favorable schedule for us, even having one road and one home, that home game; even if it's a night game it helps us a little bit. Turning around and playing at 1:30 on Saturday, that is a quick turnaround knowing we'll get back into town around midnight on Thursday, go to class on Friday, and have just the better part of 24 hours to get ready for a Keady team is scary. Then we get on our routine, where Sundays are off, and we play Wednesday/Saturday from there one. We just need to get through this week, try to get better, and then we can get on our routine.
Q: It is a benefit at all knowing that Illinois runs Purdue-system with Coach Weber and then it is Purdue itself?
SA: A little bit, but I think there are enough differences. We're preparing now for both, we have one coach as the Purdue scout, and one coach as the Illinois scout. I can't turn my attention to Purdue at all until we leave Champaign. It just doesn't have that confident feel when you've got 2 days to prep, it's very tight turnaround. We know we're going to see man to man defense in both games. Teams that really like to fight you defensively, and great job defensively. There are personnel changes that we have to make the adjustment going from Illinois to Purdue.
Q: Do take anything from the fact that you guys played Illinois tough last year?
SA: We did play them well, but bad thing is, we scored 82 and still lost. We've had a hard time guarding them. That's going to be a test to our defense. They get into you, they pressure you, and they can really get you and disrupt what you want to do offensively. So it's like anything, you got to go on the road, but when you play the #1, you've got to play with the most poise you've played with all year. You've got to be confident and poised especially at the offensive end. Defensively, can't have mental breakdowns, you've got to make them make plays. Not give them easy stuff, if we're giving them second shots, which are either fouls, lay-ups, or wide open threes. We can't let their transition game get going in high gear. If those things happen, it's going to be hard on us.