The final vision from last March from Assembly Hall was a blur. Dayton went end to end for easy baskets off forced turnovers in the NIT quarterinal win over Illinois. A lesson could be found there, said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who wants to play at a faster pace -- even if not the helter skelter speed of Dayton. The first step, though, is playing better defense and creating easy scoring opportunities on the fast break.

The final vision from last March from Assembly Hall was a blur. Dayton went end to end for easy baskets off forced turnovers in the NIT quarterinal win over Illinois.

A lesson could be found there, said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, who wants to play at a faster pace -- even if not the helter skelter speed of Dayton. The first step, though, is playing better defense and creating easy scoring opportunities on the fast break.

Prior to the orange and blue intrasquad scrimmage Sunday at Assembly Hall (4 p.m.), Weber concentrated on remaking a defense that wasn't aggressive and lacked toughness. Last season, the Illini were lean on steals, worse on defending the post and weak on making key stops. A team filled with scorers, Illinois increased practice time on defense.

"With our athleticism, length and experience, we have a chance to be a good defensive team," Weber said. "That's something we've definitely been emphasizing.''

The stats from last year were somewhat deceptive, Weber said. While the Illini finished second in the Big Ten in field goal defense and third in three-point defense, the Illini were eighth in rebound defense and ninth in steals.

Thus, opponents had more possessions. Illinois ranked 10th in scoring defense, allowing 66.8 points per game.

"We've given them no choice with how much time we've spent on it,'' Weber said. "When we're controlling a three-on-three in practice, they do what we say. Now when they get going, what comes out? Old habits? Where are you supposed to be on this drill and where are you supposed to be on five-on-five? Now they have to take pride in it and have carryover from the drills.''

The Illini took the hint.

"He wants us to have a dominating defense that takes you far in the tournament, even if the offense struggles a little bit,'' Illinois forward Bill Cole said. "Last year, we could beat teams when the offense was on. If we weren't shooting it well, we'd lose a game we weren't supposed to lose because we couldn't shoot or play defense.

"This year, we're going to work on defense out of the gate, build a defensive foundation that it's going to be tough to get anything on us.''

The NCAA snub last season inspired the Illini to make a change.

"Last year, we had the ability,'' center Mike Tisdale said. "We didn't have the attitude. This year, we have the ability, and everyone worked on the attitude.''

Except for Cole, the Illini's best defenders last season were youngsters. Cole led the Illini in Matto Award points, edging guard D.J. Richardson, who could be the Illini stopper this winter.

Freshmen Jereme Richmond, Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard have size and speed, two key ingredients in defense.

But Illinois seeks improvement from Tisdale, forward Mike Davis and guard Demetri McCamey.

Davis and Tisdale don't shy away from contact as much after adding weight in the offseason. McCamey dropped weight, and better conditioning may help him play at both ends.

"It's been emphasized to the older guys,'' Weber said. "Demetri is one of our best passers, Mike Tisdale one of our best scorers, and Mike Davis a great rebounder. If they can add a defensive part to their games, it would help them and help us in the long run.''

NOTES: The scrimmage is part of the season ticket package. Otherwise, admission is $10. Seating is general admission, and parking is free. The Illini will play four quarters and change rosters during the workout.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.