Illini look to improve defense in pivotal non-conference game

The Illini don’t have much room to budge right now.

After dropping two games in the Las Vegas Invitational and barely slipping past Clemson and Boise State last week, several Illini agree Tuesday night’s contest against Vanderbilt will determine the direction of the rest of their non-conference season.

“Because of the losses out in Vegas, I don’t think we have much room on our resume,” head coach Bruce Weber said. “A letdown at home could cause us more damage down the road.”

Weber hopes to boost his team’s resume by defeating one of his closest friends in the coaching business, Vanderbilt’s Kevin Stallings.

Weber and Stallings were assistant coaches together for six seasons at Purdue under Gene Keady during the mid-’80s. The two coaches faced each other last year in Nashville, Tenn,, where Illinois came away with a 69-63 victory.

“It’s kind of the same as it was with the Clemson situation for us,” junior center Mike Tisdale said of Tuesday’s contest. “We went in there wanting (revenge), and I’m sure Vanderbilt will come in the same way.”

Four players scored in double figures for the Illini in the game last season, including junior guard Demetri McCamey, who led the team with 23 points.

But the squads are riding different paths into the matchup this season than a year ago.

Vanderbilt has won its last four games and has defeated several big schools already this season, including Arizona, DePaul, Missouri and a surprising Saint Mary’s team. Its only loss came at the hands of No. 19 Cincinnati in the first round of the Maui Invitational.

All of Vanderbilt’s starters return from last season, including mobile big man A.J. Ogilvy, last week’s SEC Player of the Week.

“They know how to play,” Weber said of the Commodores’ veterans. “They know how to use their bodies. They know how to get open. They know how to do the little things.”

Weber said he hopes Illinois’ win at Clemson will bring the team together more Tuesday than it did against Boise State on Saturday.

“You hope it’s a springboard for continued success, continued camaraderie,” Weber said of the historic comeback.

The team’s leading scorer and rebounder this season, junior forward Mike Davis, stressed Illinois will only win if it takes care of the ball on both sides of the court. Along with Ohio State’s Evan Turner — who recently injured his back and is expected to sit out at least eight weeks — Davis is the only Big Ten player averaging a double-double on the season.

Davis and the Illini haven’t had trouble finding the basket this season, as all five starters continue to average double figures in scoring, but they haven’t been able to prevent their opponents from getting there either.

“So far we haven’t proven we can play defense that well except for maybe the second half against Clemson,” Tisdale said. “Some guys are going to have to take some pride, and we’re going to have to make good stops … It’s just a matter of if we want to do it.”

If the Illini hope to shut down the Commodores, they will have to start from the tip-off.

“We can’t get off to a slow start,” Davis said. “We can’t have lapses. We’ve got to play a complete game, probably our first complete game of the season.”