Illini search for more defense in Big Ten Tournament

Ever since head coach Bruce Weber arrived at Illinois in 2003, he has followed the blueprint of an aggressive pressure defense he learned in his days as an assistant coach under former Purdue head coach Gene Keady.

But this year’s squad has forced Weber to take a slightly different defensive approach, though freshman guard D.J. Richardson provides some hope for the future.

“I think D.J. will become that kind of guy, but we don’t have enough guys to do it,” Weber said. “So we’ve had to really back off the pressure, which I think has been a key to the success.”

Weber said this squad’s focus on offense only adds to the problem.

Junior forward Mike Davis agreed.

“This team is kind of based off if guys make shots, they play well. A lot of guys on this team think that way. We can’t think that way,” Davis said. “To be a good team, you got to think defense first.

“And some guys, you know, think offense first — you want to score, you want get the ball, get the crowd going, stuff like that,” Davis added. “But we can’t think like that. If we think defense first, I think we’ll be OK.”

Illinois (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) has a chance to do just that Friday as it takes on No. 4-seed Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5) in Big Ten Tournament action at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Fresh off falling to the Badgers at the Assembly Hall to close out the regular season, the No. 5-seed Fighting Illini have more on their minds than just surviving to play another day.

“We’d like to avenge our loss they gave us last week at home,” freshman forward Tyler Griffey said.

Illinois knocked off Wisconsin in Madison, Wis., earlier in the season, but with junior forward Jon Leuer back in the mix for the Badgers, last Sunday was a different story, as he put 20 points up in his team’s 72-57 win.

This time around, the Illini have a plan to defend him.

“Coach Weber’s telling us to defend him before he catches the ball, not let him catch it on the post, not let him catch it on spots where he’s more comfortable, keeping him outside and stuff like that,” Griffey said.

“He really favors going over his left shoulder with his right hand, and if we stay on that shoulder and limit his turnaround jumpers, stuff like that, we could keep him from being a factor,” Griffey added.

But it will take more than just improved defense on Leuer to subdue the Badgers. The Illini also have adjustments to make on the offensive end of the court.

Junior center Mike Tisdale led the Illini offense with 16 points against Wisconsin on Sunday, and he’ll be a key factor again Friday.

“They play a little different style — pack defense — you can’t really attack the basket too much,” Davis said. “I think we just got to make shots, so pick and roll and pop. Me and (Tisdale) got to make some shots to keep us in the game.”

After ending the season on a rocky stretch that saw the Illini win just one of their final six contests, Illinois’ NCAA Tournament hopes may hang on its performance this weekend in Indianapolis. But the Fighting Illini are staying focused on what’s in their control.

“We’re just looking at Wisconsin right now. If we beat Wisconsin, that’s everything,” Griffey said. “It’s out of our hands now. All we can worry about is beating Wisconsin and taking the steps necessary after that.”