After Wisconsin ended a six-game losing streak with a 63-50 victory over visiting Illinois on Thursday, Weber admitted the Illini "wilt'' when things don't go perfectly. A team that played with so much poise before New Year's Day has shown little of it in 2009.
All the messages from coach Bruce Weber to No. 23 Illinois were summarized in an article at ESPN.com by basketball analyst Jay Blias.
Toughness in basketball isn't throwing a shoulder or talking trash. It's fundamentals such as setting the screen, taking a charge, showing confident body language, boxing out and finishing plays.
For Weber and the Illini, it's been a yearlong project that continued with the latest motivational T-shirt: It takes courage to be special. It also takes some heart.
"The kids think (toughness) is pounding your chest when you get a dunk,'' Weber said. "It's playing strong. It's setting a screen. It's blocking out. It's making a stop when you need it. It's body language when things don't go right.''
After Wisconsin ended a six-game losing streak with a 63-50 victory over visiting Illinois on Thursday, Weber admitted the Illini "wilt'' when things don't go perfectly. A team that played with so much poise before New Year's Day has shown little of it in 2009. Figure the Illini saw the article by Bilas.
"It's perfect for us,'' Weber said. "It's taking responsibility. That's what toughness is. I've been writing it on the board since Day One. Mental toughness and physical toughness. It was the question mark I had for our season. Teams that have toughness are teams that are successful.''
Former Purdue coach Gene Keady, Weber's former boss, won six Big Ten titles on teams built around toughness.
Illinois (18-5 overall, 6-4 in the Big Ten) faces No. 12 Purdue (17-5, 6-3) at Assembly Hall on Sunday (noon, CBS) in a pivotal game. The Illini haven't lost two straight this season and remain the only team without a Big Ten home loss. But the pressure to protect the home court builds with each failure on the road.
"You have to have confidence playing offense and defense,'' said Illini guard Trent Meacham, the sweat running down his face after a 30-minute shooting workout before practice. "You have to play with that little bounce in your step, that little confidence. On the road, we haven't had that. We have to get that back. Hopefully, we can get it back Sunday and take it on the road.''
As Weber and the Illini see it, if they can get tough on defense and regain some swagger, the offense will come, rather than the other way around. Illinois shot 32.8 percent at Wisconsin, close to the season-low 29.4 percent the Illini mustered on the road against Minnesota one week earlier.
Toughness and confidence go together, said Illini sophomore center Mike Tisdale.
"Confidence is offense, making shots,'' he said. "Toughness is everything, the little things that doesn't get on the stat sheet. Taking charges. Setting screens. Defending. We're focused too much on offense right now. We've been successful in the past. We led the nation at one point in assists. We figured the offense would come and defense we didn't need to worry about. We have to focus on defense, and the offense will come.''
Midway through the first half Thursday, Wisconsin scored on 11 of 13 possessions to take control and eventually score 37 points before halftime.
Although eight games remain in the Big Ten schedule, Illinois already feels the urgency to protect home court.
"Last year, I had enough losing for a lifetime,'' Tisdale said. "We really have to come ready to play, prove we can win on the road and keep our home winning streak going. The season isn't over for this team yet. We've got quite a bit of the season left. We hit a rough patch. We have to come in and get better.''
NOTES: Eddie Johnson and Don Freeman, who were among 30 players whose jerseys were honored and hung above the Assembly Hall floor, will be recognized about 15 minutes before the Illinois-Purdue game Sunday. … The Illini-Boilers showdown is a national broadcast on CBS. … Purdue sophomore forward Robbie Hummel's status against Illinois is a gametime decision, Boilers coach Matt Painter said.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.