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Tuesday, November 9, 2010
Illinois defense goes hot and cold in debut

By Eamonn Brennan

You can forgive Illinois fans if they spend the early part of the new season tweaking out about defense. After all, defense is Bruce Weber's calling card, the one consistent thing he's been able to instill in every team, good or bad, since he took over at Illinois. Ball pressure to 30 feet, stifling man-to-man rotation, comprehensive interior help -- to win under Weber, this is what the Illini have to do. Usually, it is what they do.

That wasn't the case in 2009-10. For a variety of reasons, Illinois' defense was merely mediocre in last season's campaign. Weber's team allowed .927 adjusted points per possession, which ranked No. 49 in the country. It's a decent mark, but not an impressive one, especially considering the drop-off it represented from the previous season, when the Illini were the fourth-most efficient defense in the country. Even in 2007-08, when Illinois finished 16-19 -- the worst record of Weber's career -- Illinois was a much better defensive team (.899 adjusted points per possession, ranked No. 21) than in 2009-10. Last winter, had Illinois played defense even as well the worst team in Weber's tenure, the Illini probably wouldn't have ended up in the NIT. True story.

All of which is a long preamble to the current question: How does this year's Illinois defense look?

One game is not exactly a fair sample size (especially when that game is a season-opener against the UC-Irvine Anteaters), but even if it was, the jury would still be out. From the Big Ten Geeks:
Bruce Weber must have been pleased with his team's first half against UC-Irvine, in which the Illini allowed just 0.49 points per possession. The Anteaters shot just 23 percent from the field and turned it over on nearly a third of their possessions. [...] After intermission, however, it was a completely different story. Suddenly UC-Irvine was scoring in bunches, using dribble penetration to give the Illini fits. After scoring just 18 points in the first 20 minutes, the Anteaters reeled off 25 points in 10 minutes. Clearly, allowing a Big West team to score at a 100-point pace for an extended period is not something to be proud of, no matter how stifling the first half defense was.

Illinois got things under control after that stretch, and eventually ran away with a win that wasn't even as close as the final score, 79-65, would indicate. And, again, it's just the season opener; Illinois will have plenty of time to work out the kinks. But it is something worth watching. Unless Brandon Paul continues to shoot like he did last night (6-for-8 from beyond the arc, 18 points), and Jereme Richmond is even better than everyone thinks, this Illinois team probably isn't destined for a brilliant offensive season. To compete for the Big Ten title, it will, as always, have to play stifling defense.