The Fighting Illini put together their best two halves of the season to beat 24th-ranked Vanderbilt 79-68 Tuesday night in Champaign.
Illinois (7-2) never trailed at any point in the game, leading by as many as 16 to push their record to 6-0 at home.
This is the Illinois team for which people have been waiting to finally gel together.
Bruce Weber even acknowledged before the game that out of the last six halves of basketball, the Illini had played well in maybe one-and-a-half of them while losing to Bradley, needing a 23-point comeback to beat Clemson, and squeaking out a win against Boise State.
Demetri McCamey stayed out of foul trouble to score 23 points on 8-of-10 shooting while dishing out five assists. Mike Tisdale wasn't forced to play big in the post, but instead was able to get open shots inside the arc. He started off 6-of-7 and finished with 14 points and five rebounds.
Brandon Paul and Mike Davis were allowed to be human for a game, although Paul still finished with seven points and five assists. Davis brought down eight rebounds and had two blocks, thanks in part to juniors McCamey and Tisdale stepping up their game and freshman D.J. Richardson finishing with 16 points on 7-of-11 shooting.
All this for the Illini starting five, while the bench added 15 points, 13 coming from Dominique Keller and Jeff Jordan.
This is what Illinois wants every game.
The Fighting Illini have five starters who can score 20 on any given night, but two of them are freshmen. That means Tisdale, McCamey, and Davis will often have to take the lead.
But Tisdale has not been the least bit reliable. He plays soft and the second he puts the ball on the ground, he's finished. But if you give him an outside shot, the seven-footer can bury you.
McCamey also has some issues. He tends to be lazy on defense, which leads to foul trouble. When that happens, it forces one of the freshmen to run the point.
McCamey is also a natural shooting guard, which is part of the reason he has turnover problems (six against Vanderbilt) when playing point guard.
Richardson and Paul have played well in spurts, but as freshmen, they cannot be expected to carry this team. That makes the improved play of Tisdale and McCamey against a ranked opponent even more important.
The game against Vanderbilt was everything people have come to expect from this Illinois team every night. Tisdale, McCamey, and Davis stay out of foul trouble, which allows Richardson and Paul to play their game.
Add in great defense by the starting fine and some bullying defensive (although an offensive spark is always a possibility as well) from Keller, Jordan, and Bill Cole off the bench and you have a game-plan.
The Illini have survived their two non-conference bumps in the road in losses to Utah and Bradley. If they continue to come together as they did against Vanderbilt, it could be a smooth ride from here to the NCAA Tournament.