Illinois searching for more effective defense

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CHAMPAIGN — Noted Kansas City Chiefs fan Brad Underwood was rather upbeat as he started his Monday afternoon press conference at State Farm Center.

How Underwood addressed the way the Chiefs won, though, was telling.

Patrick Mahomes might be inevitable — and the Kansas City quarterback was clearly unstoppable on the game-winning drive in overtime that propelled the Chiefs to a 25-22 win against the 49ers late Sunday night — but it was Chris Jones and the Chiefs' defense that was at the heart of the franchise's third Super Bowl win in the last five seasons.

"As we often say, winners win, and defense wins championships," Underwood said. "All the things we talk about in our program kind of came true. Now we have to go do it."

No. 14 Illinois (17-6, 8-4 Big Ten) is not in "defense wins championships" territory heading into its 6 p.m. Tuesday rematch with Michigan (8-16, 3-10) at State Farm Center.

The Illini have a top 10 offense nationally — ranking sixth in adjusted efficiency by both Ken Pomeroy and Bart Torvik — but don't have the defense to match it.

Illinois' defense ranks 41st in the country, per Pomeroy. It's a number that doesn't tell the most recent tale, however. Since January, the Illini's adjusted defensive efficiency, per Torvik, has ranked 88th. Those struggles were on full display during the final 71/2 minutes of Saturday's 88-80 loss at Michigan State when the Spartans outscored Illinois 24-8 down the stretch.

Good shots rimmed in and out for Illinois. The offense, while ineffective, wasn't the issue. Scouting report mistakes were. Missteps on simple, fundamental tenets of the Illini defense were.

"We're soft," Underwood said. "We were very soft. We committed three and-ones in the last 31/2 minutes. When you're committing and-one fouls, that means you're very passive and not very aggressive. I didn't like that very much.

"We're very proficient on the offensive end. It's a very, very false sense of reality that you can rely on that to win you games when it counts. We have to become better defensively."

Illinois is still limiting three-point attempts by its opponents during its January (and now February) defensive slide. But while the Illini rank second nationally in three-point rate, their opponents have made 37 percent of their three-pointers in the last 11 games.

The tough two-pointers Illinois prides itself on forcing also haven't been as tough. The Illini ranked second in the country in two-point field goal defense in November and December, with their opponents shooting just 41 percent inside the arc. In January and February, Illinois' opponents are shooting 49 percent on twos, dropping the Illini to 115th nationally.

"Maybe we've got to be more physical," Illinois guard Marcus Domask said. "I think we've just got to care more, honestly. I think we get caught up in caring about just trying to execute on offense sometimes, and our focus doesn't go to defense. We've got to flip our focus and lock in on that side.

"It's just a mindset thing. We've got to have more talk on that side, be more physical and we've just got to want it. We can't let little stuff slip."

That includes simply guarding the ball. And not blowing switches.

"We've got to dial in more, be more aggressive with our switches," Illinois forward Coleman Hawkins said. "It's little things that happen when you blow switches. It's really having the urge to want to sit down and guard the ball as well."

Underwood said he might have to be more conscientious about defensive substitutions late in games. Utilize the versatility of the roster better, with multiple players who can guard multiple positions.

"It's not like we're horrible," the Illini coach said, "but we've got to create a desire when the game is on the line to get stops."