Weber bringing Illini men’s basketball back to defensive roots

Last season, the Illinois men’s basketball team had a record of 5-6 in games decided by five points or fewer.

To help turn the tide in its favor, the team will look to solidify its play on the defensive end after giving up 65.4 points per game a year ago.

“We have the weapons to be a pretty good defensive team and put on the pressure,” senior point guard Sam Maniscalco said Oct. 11 at the team’s media day. “Our wings are very athletic, our bigs can run, our bigs can move, so extending our defense is definitely something coaches reiterated to us that we want to do and apply the pressure.”

Gone is the team’s leading shot-blocker from a year ago, Mike Tisdale, who averaged 1.6 blocks per game. Looking to fill the void down low will be sophomore center Meyers Leonard, who finished last season with 13 blocks in 33 games played.

After a successful experience on the defensive end at the U19 FIBA World Championships over the summer that saw him average more than a block and a half per game, Leonard said he feels ready for the added responsibility on the defensive end.

“Obviously I want to shut my guy down and average a block and a half, maybe two blocks and just be a presence,” Leonard also said at Illinois’ media day. “(Tisdale) was a good shot-blocker … but as far as our overall defensive presence in the lane, as far as our bigs were concerned, we really didn’t have one.”

Accounting for the revitalized emphasis on the defensive end, head coach Bruce Weber turned to the last two Illinois teams to win the conference, the 2004-05 national champion runner-ups as well as the 2003-04 squad.

During those two seasons, the Illini allowed an average of 61.1 points per game and 62.9 points per game, respectively. The squads also forced 14.9 and 14.4 turnovers per game, while last year’s squad forced 12.1 per game.

“We have athleticism, we have length, we have depth,” Weber said. “In ’03-04, ’04-05 and even ’05-06, everybody always talked about our offense, but it was our defense that created it all.”

Much of the success the Illini will get out of the defensive end will be determined by what they put into it.

“It’s a mentality as far as effort goes,” Maniscalco said. “Defense is effort and heart. Obviously there’s a lot of technique … but mistakes can be made up with effort and heart, and that’s how it’s always been, and I think we’ve got the right guys to do that.”