Summer Buzz: Illinois Fighting Illini

July, 28, 2010
7/28/10
1:27
PM ET
For the next month or so, our friends at The Mag are previewing one high-profile school per day for their Summer Buzz series. For the sake of all that is synergistic, yours truly will be attempting the same, complementing each comprehensive Insider preview with some adjusted efficiency fun. Today's subject: Illinois. Up next? Purdue.

What happened to the Illinois defense?

For all the ups and downs of Bruce Weber's tenure at Illinois, there has always been one thing the Illini do well: defend. Weber's teams aren't hard to figure out, but they've always been consistent. They play tenacious man-to-man defense out to 30 feet. They lock down perimeter threats and hedge ball screens before rotating, recovering and forcing the offense to start all over again. They don't give you anything easy.

[+] EnlargeBruce Weber
AP Photo/Robert K. O'DaniellBruce Weber's defense last season wasn't what it has been in recent years.
There's no junk involved, and very little zone. Weber's teams are defensively simple. They're also simply ruthless.

To wit, here are the defensive efficiency numbers of Weber's teams since his first season in Champaign (calculated as opposition's points per 100 possessions; tempo-free numbers courtesy of Ken Pomeroy):

  • 2003-04: 92.1. Rank: 35. Record: 26-7.
  • 2004-05: 87.4. Rank: 11. Record: 37-2.
  • 2005-06: 90.5. Rank: 21. Record: 26-11.
  • 2006-07: 84.7. Rank: 3. Record: 23-12.
  • 2007-08: 89.9. Rank: 21. Record: 16-19.
  • 2008-09: 86.5. Rank: 4. Record: 24-10.

Then, in 2009-10, something funky happened:

  • 2009-10: 92.7. Rank: 49. Record: 21-15.

The Illini went from the fourth-ranked defense in 2008-09 to the 49th, in the process posting Weber's worst defensive coaching season in his seven-year Illinois career.

This can't be blamed on a dearth of talent. In the past, Weber's teams haven't needed talent to defend; those 16-19 Illini from 2007-08 may have been horrifically inept with the ball in their hands, not to mention one of the least athletic teams in the Big Ten, but they still held opponents to fewer points per possession than last year's squad.
"Demetri [McCamey] went to the Deron Williams Skills Academy and the LBJ Skills camp and he heard the same thing I told him all last season: you need to start guarding people," says Weber.

Illinois' perimeter defense was perhaps its weakest component last year -- the Illini didn't turn anyone over, and opposing teams scored 33.3 percent of their baskets against Illinois from beyond the arc. Some of that is surely McCamey's fault. As one of Illinois' veterans and a supposed team leader, McCamey had his fair share of disagreements with Weber throughout the season, and perhaps a lack of effort on the defensive end was one of the causes.

It also didn't help that Weber had to rely on two talented but inexperienced freshmen -- Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson -- at backcourt positions for much of last season. Both players can score, but neither was a particularly adept defender; if you looked for it, you could see that confused "But I was helping over here!" look on walks back to timeouts pretty much every game. A year later, both players should be much better.

There is more talent on the way, too. Weber has long been criticized by some Illinois fans as an X's and O's guy who can't recruit, one who could coach up a group of second-tier players but couldn't land the talented in-state recruits Illinois churns up each and every year. No more. Paul and Richardson were big first steps. The coup de grace comes in the form of Jereme Richmond, the No. 4 small forward in the class of 2010. Richmond is known as a polished scorer who needs to add strength, but his length and athleticism should make an immediate impact on the defensive side of the ball.

Same goes for Meyers Leonard, a 7-foot center ranked No. 4 at his position in 2010, whose name sounds like a big four accounting firm. (That's not just me, right?) Leonard will be the strongest player on his team, and his sheer size should help bolster Illinois' interior and defensive rebounding.

What it all adds up to is a talented, experienced Illinois team adding a potentially elite scorer and some much needed interior girth. So, yeah, Illinois should be better at putting points on the board in 2010-11. That's always a bonus.

But where the Illini's season will really be made -- or broken -- is whether they can correct last year's ugly team defense. That answer will come down to this: Were the 2009-10 Illini a statistical outlier? Or simply a group that isn't all that good at playing defense, no matter how good their coach might be at teaching it?

If it's the latter, Illinois will be pretty good, but that's it. If it's the former, then Michigan State and Purdue won't be the only legitimate contenders for the Big Ten title. We'll see.

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