By Paul M. Banks
Most college basketball geeks around the country didnâ€™t expect much from IllinoisÂ -predicting them to reach the NIT at best- and Northwestern, who has never reached the NCAA tournament in program history. Their conference, the Big Ten, was expected to be very weak as far as the six power conferences go. Yet our stateâ€™s two Big Ten teams have a combined record of 11-1 today. As the made-for-ESPN event that is the Big Ten/ACC Challenge begins, the Midwestern power conference has a 55-9 overall record, second to (yes, you guessed it) the ACCâ€™s 61-10. Whatâ€™s the secret to this early season success? Defense, as the Big Ten is first in scoring against average, holding opponents to 59.3 points per game. Northwestern is second only to Ohio State with a 50.2 scoring against average. Illinois is third, yielding 56.2 ppg.
Â After a 59-43 drubbing of UC-Riverside, NU coach Bill Carmody spoke about the size added to his lineup this year and how itâ€™s improved his teamâ€™s defense. â€œThey (bigger teams getting extra shots) have plagued us for years. I donâ€™t know if the big guys necessarily get all the rebounds, but theyâ€™re always at least keeping their man away from it, so maybe itâ€™s just our presence inside,â€ Carmody said. Senior guard Craig Moore, holder of the school record for three-pointers, talked about the teamâ€™s new crashing-the-boards philosophy and how it helps augment the team defense. â€œCoach always says in practice, keep crashing, keep crashing, he told me to crash and I looked at him like he was crazy, but itâ€™s a different style and weâ€™re just trying to play hard and really get after it on defense,â€ Moore said.
On the other end of the floor, both teams have found unexpected leaders. Point guard Juice Thompson runs NUâ€™s Princeton offense with a solid 3:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. And if you play the one at a Big Ten school, â€œjuiceâ€ is the perfect word to describe your on-campus reputation. The Illini were expected to rely heavily on their guards for offense this year, but their leading scorer, Mike Davis actually plays the four. Mike Tisdale, his complement in the post, was just named Conference player of the week. Sure, the season is less than a month old and the Big Ten has largely feasted on cupcake teams with almost as many hyphens in their names as victories, (both UI and NU beat Texas A&M-Corpus Christi by about 20 points) but both squads look much better than expected so far.