Illini look to future, not past

Online Poster

Online Poster

By Online Poster

In January 2005, Illinois basketball was embedded in a 15-week run as the No. 1 team in the country on its way to a No. 2 finish in the NCAA tournament. With five experienced starters and a bench that featured two seniors, the Illini had all the right factors for a run at the National Championship.

Fast forward 12 months, and things at the Ubben practice facility look a little different. Gone are Jack, Nick and Rog – the seniors Illini fans looked to for big boards and occasional clutch threes. Gone are Luther and Deron, two-thirds of that storied “best backcourt in the nation,” who have contributed on NBA teams 1,640 miles apart. Gone is the flood of national media, now reduced to a trickle of reporters writing stories – much like this one – on the year after the Season of the Century.

What Illinois has in January 2006 is a solid NCAA tournament contender. As one of six ranked teams in the Big Ten, the No. 8 Illini have taken a team in which five players did not hit the court last season, churned it through a heavy dose of motion offense and shooting drills, and produced a defensive squad very different from the offensively minded Illini of 2005.

“I think we’re better defensively, I’ll be honest,” coach Bruce Weber said comparing the two seasons. “We were so good offensively last year, they thought they could take possessions off.”

If there’s anything the Illini have learned since practice officially kicked off last October, it’s that the faster you adapt to a new squad’s strengths, the better you can exploit them. So the Illini have turned to defense, relying on the backcourt’s quick aggression and the frontcourt’s dominant rebounding to carry the team when the shots don’t fall.

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Good thing, too, because the shots haven’t always fallen. Brown hit a much-publicized shooting slump early in the Big Ten season, something he brushes off as having no effect on him personally or on the court. Rich McBride, a junior in his first year starting, has been criticized for his on-court decision-making. And the whole team has struggled at the free throw line.

But amidst the offensive problems, the Illini have managed to shut down the biggest players in each team they face. On Saturday, Northwestern’s Vedran Vukusic scored just five points; his season average before facing Illinois was 20.9 points per game. Indiana’s Robert Vaden only managed two points – a pair of free throws – against the Illini.

“We can’t let our offense affect our defense,” Weber said.

At 17-2, 3-2 Big Ten, the Illini are tied for 4th place in the conference. They’re still struggling to put the pieces together, still struggling to find some kind of consistency on offense, and still struggling to move past memories of 2005.

“I want to compare ourselves to last year,” Brown said. “Last year we played as a team.”