CHAMPAIGN - The way Bruce Weber sees it, last year he had an offensive basketball team that was so professional in its efficiency, he thought of them as white collar.
This year, it's the blue-collar work ethic that is defining his team.
Either way, the results are similar. For the second season in a row, Illinois is 13-0 and drawing national attention for its ability to get the job done consistently.
The Illini can complete a perfect 14-0 run through the non-conference portion of its schedule if it can defeat Tennessee-Martin tonight at the Assembly Hall. The immediate reward would be several days off in preparation for the Big Ten Conference opener Jan. 5 at home against preseason league favorite Michigan State.
One might assume that, heading into tonight's game with an unblemished record, Weber is satisfied with Illinois' performance.
He's a difficult-to-please critic who tends to note other team's assets while worrying constantly about his own team's deficiencies.
"When I watch other people play, I always think, 'Man, they're way better than us,'" Weber said. "Then we play somebody like Georgetown and coach (John) Thompson (III) says we could be one of the teams that could go all the way. I'm thinking, 'Where is this coming from?'
"You're just more critical of yourself. When you see other teams, you tend to see highlights. The one thing I'm trying to watch is the Big Ten. Where do we fit in? I don't watch the other undefeated teams (in the country), but I watch the Big Ten. That's our next worry, competing for the Big Ten championship again."
A year ago, when Illinois zoomed all the way to the national championship game, Weber could count on a gifted bunch of shooters and assist specialists who could make the offense purr.
"Last year, we were white-collar, we were pros offensively," Weber said. "We were skilled. We had so many weapons. We could turn it on and off when we wanted and toy with people. But we are not that way now.
"I talked early about finding our identity, and I think their identity is playing hard and playing defense. Now, if we can keep that and get better offensively, get some more inside touches, use our big guys who are better scoring inside than last year, it could make us tough to compete against."
Weber said it's a process still very much in its infancy.
"We're just starting to get a feel for our team as a staff, to know what they can do, who we need to get the ball to, how to get it to them. Sometimes we have limitations.
"This guy, if he gets it on the left block, he's OK. If he gets it on the right block, forget it. So now we have to design a play. Who's going to pass it to him? We have to have movement on the other side, we have to be a little more creative with the Xs and Os than last year.
"But I'm pleased that they continue to play hard, they're 13-0 and they continue to keep that (winning) mentality."
Senior James Augustine comes into tonight's game needing 11 rebounds to pass Efrem Winters' career rebounding mark of 853. Weber said former assistant coach Chris Lowery challenged Augustine two years ago, telling him he had the rare chance to finish with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds.
Augustine became the 40th player in Illini history to reach 1,000 points when he did so against Rutgers on Nov. 26. To reach 1,000 rebounds, he would need to average 9.1 rebounds a game over the remaining 17 regular-season games. He's currently averaging 9.2 rebounds.
Of course, he could also have additional games in the Big Ten Conference Tournament and, presumably, the NCAA tournament.
Tonight's opponent, Tennessee-Martin, is coming off a 62-54 loss at Purdue on Wednesday night.
"They have some good size and very good athleticism," Weber said. "Their guards have some freedom to take it to the basket and shoot quick shots.
"I would think they would start in a zone and play a lot of zone. Whether they play zone or man, it's helping us prepare for the Big Ten."
Mark Tupper can be reached at mtupperyayayherald-review.