Illini overcome injury, establish strong defensive identity

By Lucas Deal

Between sightings of Dee Brown and Luther Head, the second-to-last game for Chief Illiniwek and a pair of “Get well soon” banners for Brian Carlwell and Jamar Smith, it was almost hard to notice there was actually a game going on at the Assembly Hall on Sunday afternoon.

For most people in attendance, their bodies were in their seats, but their minds seemed to be elsewhere.

Turns out the players felt the same way.

Illinois held off Northwestern 48-37 in one of the least impressive offensive games in recent Big Ten history.

Neither team showed anything close to a solid offensive game, and with the exception of Illini senior Rich McBride, the two teams combined to shoot 6 of 34 from three-point range.

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It wasn’t pretty at all, but at this point in the season the Illini aren’t playing for style points. Nope, with the NCAA Tournament only three weeks away, the Illini are playing for wins.

The last week has been a hectic one for the Illini, and they were fortunate to have an entire week off before the Wildcats came to town.

Because of last week’s accident, the Illini have been limited to minimal practice time, and their lack of preparation showed.

Luckily, the Illini were still able to showcase their ferocious team defense and easily kept the struggling Wildcats offense at bay.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber said his team’s ability to guard and play defense is its biggest asset right now, and if the team can continue to guard the way it did Sunday, it has the ability to come up with some big wins in the season’s final weeks.

“Our defense keeps us going,” Weber said. “We can win games with defense.”

Weber added that as rough as this season has been for him and his assistant coaches, he is really proud of the way they have been able to create a solid defensive identity.

With three regular season games to go, the Illini are 19-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten.

Weber has said all season he believes 21 wins and nine conference wins should be enough to put his team in the Big Dance, but I’m not so sure.

I fear that because of the struggles this team has had with injuries, off-the-court issues and day-to-day inconsistency, the Illini aren’t really in a position to pick a number and just assume.

I think the best thing they can do is buckle down, practice hard and go out and take every game they can.

Twenty-one wins would be nice, but 22 isn’t impossible.

Wednesday’s opponent, Michigan, hasn’t won a meaningful road game in a long time.

Penn State hasn’t won anything all season, and Illinois’ season-finale opponent Iowa has already fallen once to the Orange and Blue.

If the Illini were to win all three of those games and hit the Big Ten Tournament at 22-9 and 10-6, I think everyone on campus would be a lot more comfortable come Selection Sunday.

And not only that, a 10-6 conference record could also vault the Illini into third or fourth place in the Big Ten.

Then say the Illini take one game in Chicago and hit the 23-win mark. I think it would be awfully hard to ignore the Illini with a resume like that.

But that’s just what I think, so who really knows?

I guess the best thing the Illini can hope for is that they really play hard this week so when they show up in Iowa City for the season finale they’ve already got 21 wins under their belt.

If Weber’s prediction is right, everything after that would be just gravy.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at

[email protected].