Illinois cohered, while Mizzou tinkered
Bruce Weber couldn't stop chattering, talking so fast that he was nearly tripping over his words.
ST. LOUIS -- Bruce Weber couldn't stop chattering, talking so fast that he was nearly tripping over his words.
Forgive him if he was a bit excited Tuesday night in the hallways of the Savvis Center. You see, Weber found his Illinois team during the 71-70 victory over Missouri in the "Braggin' Rights" game in an evenly split partisan arena.
And, even in defeat, Missouri coach Quin Snyder may have discovered his squad, too.
Sure, Weber had wins over Arkansas in Chicago and Memphis in Champaign. But the Illini were exposed in losses to Providence and to some extent against North Carolina.
Weber didn't really have a grasp on this team yet. A week ago he went so far as to call for former coach Bill Self's fictitious funeral as coach of the Illini. The comments were bizarre, but he had had enough of being compared to his predecessor.
Getting his players to understand what he wanted didn't come as easy as he had thought, even with a team-bonding August trip to Scandinavia.
"It's part of taking over a program, especially one that has had success," Weber said. "We're still a team developing and getting the kids to buy into everything. We've had disruptions with the suspensions (Aaron Spears, Richard McBride and Luther Head early in the season for four games each) and the injury (Deron Williams' broken jaw). Things haven't gone smoothly, but when we come out with this kind of energy and are the aggressor, then the bounces go your way."
In the past few days of practice, Weber and the team finally meshed. This team wants to play at a speed that only point guard Dee Brown can dictate (that means fast). They want to be the aggressor from the opening tip and, believe it or not, actually sustain it (they were up 12-0 against Providence before folding against the Friars' zone).
And it doesn't matter that there are still distractions. This team finally gets Weber. Forget about Williams (12.9 ppg) being out for another two weeks, or that Weber still hasn't decided on how to use the oft-troubled Spears (DNP Tuesday).
Illinois took it to Missouri early and often, and withstood the Tigers' late charge to win.
And no one epitomized the change in this program under Weber more than Nick Smith.
The lanky, 7-2 junior forward struggled more than any other player adjusting to Weber. The assistant coaches were sick of Smith's negativity over the summer and weren't thrilled to play him on the trip abroad. The staff went hot and cold on Smith throughout the early part of the season. But Weber wasn't going to give up on Smith.
"The coaches were so mad at me they told me not to play him anymore because he was going through the motions," Weber said. "He was always muttering negative things, but I went the other way and started him, but the coaches were mad at me. By the third or fourth game you could see he was saying, 'He's going to play me, so I better play.' "
Smith was one of the differences in this game. His numbers don't scream player of the game, but his timing was invaluable. He finished with six points, four rebounds, three assists and two blocks in 24 minutes off the bench.
He also contested a shot by Missouri's Arthur Johnson with 20 seconds remaining. Johnson has at least 15 to 20 pounds on Smith, but he withstood the pounding. That play succeeded a deflection on an entry pass to Johnson on the previous possession. And that came after he took a fast-break pass from Brown and one-touch passed to James Augustine for a layup to break a 67-67 tie.
"It's definitely a lot easier for me this year," Smith said. "I've had some physical problems. I had a tendency to lose large amounts of weight throughout the season in the past, but I've been the same weight all year."
How much weight?
"Twenty to 25 pounds, from 240 to 220, and that's a lot," said Smith, who was checked out extensively by Illinois doctors last season to ensure there wasn't a mystery medical disorder aside from asthma. "There were times I couldn't play more than two minutes. My stamina and strength correlated to my weight loss. I wasn't sure if I could practice."
Weber said he stayed on Smith and wouldn't let him rest, saying that he had to finish his conditioning.
"I think that made him tougher and more competitive," Weber said.
Smith said he is almost too much of a perfectionist and would get upset with players, but he realized that for the Illini to win big games he has to play the way he did Tuesday. He still isn't quite sure where he stands with Weber, but he sees he's going to play -- and play at the end of games.
"When we listen to him about making a big play to win a game, it makes us more confident in him and him in us," Smith said.
Snyder isn't as far along as Weber is with his team, but he should surpass him come February.
The Tigers gave up too many transition points in the first 20 minutes, but locked in on Illinois in the second 20. The identity for the Tigers has to be the way they played in the second half -- built more on aggressive defensive play.
Late in the game, Snyder implored Johnson to win the game. He was the aggressor in making consecutive plays to help tie the game.
"We're not as connected as we need to be," Snyder said. .
Snyder was disappointed in the loss, but hardly dejected. He knows he figured out who needs to play. He can whittle his roster down to a manageable seven, led by Travon Bryant, Conley, Pulley, Rickey Paulding, Jimmy McKinney and Linas Kleiza, who fouled out. Johnson should be in this group, but if he doesn't defend, Snyder will sit him.
Missouri has Final Four talent. Playing Memphis on the road, Syracuse at home and the entire Big 12 schedule will prove demanding.
"But we're going to be a very good team," Snyder said. "I'm not worried. We'll get there. We'll be much better. I know that."
Illinois discovered its team Tuesday. Missouri got a better understanding of itself, too. Ultimately, this game will help the Tigers become players in March.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.
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