Illini’s recent win: Sparked hot stretch or dud?

The last time the Illini held a Big Ten opponent to under 45 points was a 51-44 win on the road in Ann Arbor, Mich., in 2010. That contest, in which the Illini stifled Michigan to the tune of 20 percent shooting in the first half, provided a spark that was to propel the Illini to an NCAA tournament berth.

The win helped erase some of the scarring from the Valentine’s Day Massacre against Evan Turner’s Ohio State team two games earlier and the subsequent loss at then-No. 4 Purdue in which the Illini had the lead going into the half.

Beating Michigan represented a “do-over” — a chance for the team to collect itself before getting two more cracks at resume-boosting top-25 teams.

But Illinois never even got there after it suffered a true letdown loss to a very beatable Minnesota squad at home. Can the recent Michigan State win — three times as impressive a resume-booster but a third as pretty a game as 2010 Michigan — ignite a hot stretch run? Or will the Illini lay an egg against Northwestern on Sunday in a 2010 redux?

Minnesota went into the Assembly Hall that Saturday afternoon and not only snuffed out Illinois’ spark, but cashed in the ashes for a tournament bid — one that would have almost certainly gone to the Illini had they won. To make matters worse, they gave Illinois a veritable taste of its own medicine, blanketing the perimeter and forcing the Illini into 23 percent shooting in the first half. Not counting Bill Cole’s 5-for-9 performance from 3-point range, the Illini connected on just four of 27 from behind the arc.

Needless to say, the Illini were unable to recover from the Gopher loss and got drubbed by Wisconsin and Ohio State back-to-back before a second-round exit from the Big Ten tournament.

The answer to the question of ignition has to be in the newfound spark that Bruce Weber’s bunch showed on the defensive end against Michigan State. It’s safe to say that the team’s offensive woes (in regard to schematics, not point total) appear too deeply entrenched to fix this season. Perhaps it will take a second offseason for the Illini to execute Weber’s motion offense correctly. Halfway through the Big Ten regular season, Weber still spends 80 percent of his energy in a given possession yelling: “Move! Move!” — seems to be the only treatment for this team’s intermittent case of lock-knee.

Perhaps the system itself is flawed. This is a serious issue the Illini will undoubtedly have to address this offseason if they are ever going to put themselves in a position to score without making a circus shot.

What they can do at this point is come out with the same defensive intensity they brandished against the Spartans on Tuesday night. Make that your identity. Fly around, create havoc, use the youthful, often offensively challenged bench to your advantage. Rotate in 10 and put Missouri-like pressure on the ball. On Saturday, the Illini forced 16 turnovers, Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard teamed up in their usual shot-swatting fashion and, most importantly, they applied honest-to-goodness pressure away from the basket — with an edge, nonetheless. There is your short-term fix.

Will Illinois dispatch Northwestern convincingly? Or will the Illini allow them to hang in the game through poor shot selection? Can truly gritty, 41-point defense become the identity of the 2011-12 Illini? When the Illini travel to Bloomington, Ind., and Ann Arbor, Mich., in the two marquee matchups following Sunday’s tilt, will they be looking to fan the spark of the Michigan State loss into a full-on flame or will they be at square one looking not to get embarrassed by Indiana and Michigan?

_Gordon is a senior in LAS. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @GordonVoit._