When Illinois and Green Bay squared off last season as part of a Thanksgiving tournament in Puerto Rico, the result was unlikely to cause anyone to drop the turkey and stuffing in surprise. Green Bay seized an early lead, quickly expanded the advantage to double digits and rolled to an 82-62 victory.
The Phoenix were on their way to a 31-2 record, a top-10 ranking and a third consecutive trip to at least the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Illini would finish the campaign with an 11-19 record, a two-game improvement on the previous season, but would miss the NCAA tournament for the ninth season in a row. The better team won that day.
"I just remember they were very fundamentally sound," Illinois guard Alexis Smith recalled. "And they played hard."
Playing that way, Matt Bollant's teams lost a total of 19 games in his five five seasons at Green Bay, the same number of games Illinois lost last season. Green Bay went 7-2 against Big Ten opponents in those five seasons, including a win against Michigan State in 2011 that sent the Phoenix to the Sweet 16.
But when Illinois offered Bollant the coaching job in Champaign after last season, he felt he couldn't turn it down. At the moment, Green Bay is a better basketball program than Illinois. It wins more games, plays better basketball and draws more fans. But like many coaches who move from successful mid-majors to middling majors -- Indiana's Curt Miller, Texas' Karen Aston also among the most recent class -- Bollant made his move based on a calculation about the future. No matter how close to perfection Green Bay comes on the court, it is rarely, if ever, going to beat majors off the court.
When Bollant and his Green Bay staff scouted recruits, they often wrote down the letters "TG" next to a name and moved on to someone else. TG, as in "too good" to consider a mid-major.
"That was hard because our team was one of the best in the country. Why does a kid have to be too good for Green Bay? But that was the reality," Bollant said. "At Green Bay, we were the ninth-ranked team in the country the last two years, and we still lost most of the recruits to the Big Ten. We just never beat the Big Ten for recruits.
"Here at Illinois, if we're the ninth-ranked team in the country, we're going after just about any recruit in the country, just about, and at least we're in the conversation or in the final list of all those top kids."
That siren's song has lured its share of coaching careers to proverbial watery ends -- the list of programs in BCS conferences that haven't reached the Final Four remains considerably longer than the list of those that have. And make no mistake, success at such schools is ultimately measured by remaining in play for the season's final weekend.
But some of the success in creating a culture of winning comes down to developing trust with players whom the coaches didn't pick, and who didn't pick their new coaches. No part of the Illinois system depends more on trust than one of its signature defensive schemes.
Illinois associate coach Mike Divilbiss came with Bollant from Green Bay. Divilbiss is the architect of the "buzz" defense that Green Bay employed while ranking among national leaders in turnovers forced, a form of pressure that looks amorphous to the naked eye but which relies on all five players utilizing instinctive individual freedom while still maintaing responsibility within the overall framework. It isn't complicated, but it also isn't easy.
As losses to Illinois State and Bradley suggest, there have been growing pains.
"I probably anticipated us being better defensively than we are, both in our man and buzz," Bollant said. "Because we're more athletic, I thought we'd be better defensively, but it's just taking awhile to understand the system. One thing our Green Bay kids did so well is just being proactive and seeing what was happening on the court. They saw skips, they saw the pass ahead of time, and they were able to shrink the court and make it feel small because they did such a great job of anticipating and seeing the play before it happens.
"Here, that's something these kids are learning, to be proactive and anticipate."
That said, Illinois is showing signs of improvement, especially given its lack of experience. A season ago, the Illini forced 17.9 turnovers per game and held opponents to 41.0 percent shooting from the floor (numbers that held relatively steady across nonconference and league play). Through 12 games this season, they are forcing 22.3 turnovers per game and limiting opponents to 39.2 percent shooting. Numbers like that won't sell season tickets, but they might represent at least the outlines of a foundation upon which to build. If these players buy in, if they get it, the entire program will be easier to sell to those who follow.
"I love it, and I liked learning it, too," Smith said of the buzz. "It's just a go-get-'em defense. It's an attack defense. It's pressure everywhere, all over the floor, trapping, going, rotating, really flying around. You have areas you protect and you just fly around -- you have to fly around or the defense, it's not going to look good."
There were certainly things that didn't look good in a game against unbeaten and sixth-ranked Georgia on Dec. 28 -- the Illini committed 26 turnovers and shot 62 percent from the free throw line. But in addition to a sensational singular effort from Karisma Penn, averaging a career-best 19.8 points per game, and the return of Adrienne Godbold, who missed the first semester but was the team MVP last season, Illinois turned in a collective defensive effort, buzz and otherwise, that harried one of the nation's most sure-handed teams into 26 turnovers. The result was a potential season-defining 70-59 win and a lot of smiles.
Yet whatever comes, it is all but a fait accompli that Illinois will lose double-digit games this season, something it did in 28 of the past 29 seasons but something Bollant never did in 10 seasons at Green Bay and NAIA Bryan College.
"I certainly felt the pain of losses more this first semester than I have in the last couple of years," Bollant said before the Georgia win. "You have to make sure as a head coach that you believe in what you're doing, and that you don't lose your swagger and that you maintain a big-picture mentality. I think every coach would want to do that, but it's sometimes hard to do when you deal with some losses."
Bollant now wears ties on the sideline, something he was more comfortable without at Green Bay. It is partly practical, allowing him to shed his jacket in the heat of Assembly Hall, but it is also a concession. This is a different world.
The challenge is in changing it more than it changes you.
"It's great to have that success, but are you going to be able to do any better?" Bollant asked rhetorically of Green Bay. "Maybe with the potential Illinois has -- obviously we're not there now, but where can we go with this program?"