Illinois coach Bruce Weber responded to reports that Oklahoma had reached out to him to fill the Sooners’ vacated position by releasing a statement reaffirming that he is “commitmed” to the Illini program.
“I received a few interest calls regarding other positions, but nothing beyond that,” Weber said in the statement. ”I remain committed to the University of Illinois. We held our first spring workouts yesterday. I enjoyed being in the gym with our returning players and look forward to welcoming a talented recruiting class to the mix. I am fortunate to have one of the elite jobs in all of college basketball and am excited about the opportunities that lie ahead for our program. We will work tirelessly to ensure that Illinois is competing at a championship level both in the Big Ten and nationally.”
A bowl win hasn’t cured all of the Illini football team’s ails this spring.
“My head’s pounding about the same as always,” Illinois defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said Thursday.
The linebacker position might give Koenning the most headaches as he and the Illini coaches search for capable replacements for 2010 starters MARTEZ WILSON, anAll-Big Ten first team selection, and NATE BUSSEY, who was at his collegiate team’s practice Thursday as he continues to work out in Champaign in preparation for the NFL Draft.
Senior IAN THOMAS moves back to the inside after playing on the weakside last year and seems entrenched as a starter, but the Illini have little experience elsewhere.
Sophomore Jonathan Brown had promising moments as a freshman and has the inside track to the weakside starting spot, while junior ASHANTE WILLIAMS has a head start on filling Bussey’s spot on the strongside.
“Ashante got a whole lot of reps last year,” Koenning said. “I think he’s got a lot of potential. Athletically he’s probably a guy that can do more things than Bussey. He’s a different type of player.”
Sophomore Brandon Denmark moved to the inside, and redshirt freshman Houston Bates will provide depth. But Koenning said the young players will have to walk before they run.
“Obviously, we have a long way to go,” defensive coordinator VIC KOENNING said. “We got to get better. There’s a lot of fundamental things we have to improve upon.
“At the linebacker position you can hurt yourself so badly by using poor footwork. We have major concentration on just stance and start, just doing our footwork right. Especially when you’re in shorts and shells, you can’t really practice too much shedding and all that stuff but you sure can practice stance and starts and not get yourself out of position on the first step so it makes it harder to get to the ball.”
Keonning said the Illini will have to rely on true freshmen next year to add depth.
Day 2 Notes
The Illini practiced outdoors on the East Practice Fields on Thursday after spending Tuesday inside Irwin Indoor Practice Facility. The temperature hovered around 32 degrees when practice started at 8 a.m., but most of the players wore shorts and long-sleeve T-shirts under their shoulder pads. Even offensive coordinator PAUL PETRINO wore shorts in the freezing weather, though the sun peaked out to heat up the field at the conclusion of practice at about 10 a.m. The Illini’s next practice will be Saturday from 2-4:30 p.m.
Overall, Illinois coach RON ZOOK was pleased with his team’s second session. “We competed,” Zook said. “It’s like night and day compared to last year because we’re building on a system.”
Expect the Illini practice – which like all of spring practices is open to the public – to be in the elements, either on the East Practice Fields or inside Memorial Stadium, as the forecast calls for an afternoon high of 52 degrees.
Wide receiver ANTHONY WILLIAMS, a 6-foot-4 redshirt freshman, practice on Thursday after sitting out Thursday for academic issues. Williams bolsters the Illini’s thin spring receiving core, as senior A.J. JENKINS (wrist) and sophomore Darius Millines (foot) are sidelined due to injury.
A few players got into a very short tussle during Tuesday’s practice, but no such incidents happened today. Most of the players seemed to bring energy. But Petrino was the loudest during Thursday’s positional drills and new defensive backs coach MIKE GILLHAMER also ran around the field during 7-on-7 drills.
CHAMPAIGN – A bowl victory hasn’t slowed down Illinois coach Ron Zook’s word-a-millisecond delivery, but the coach certainly had a calm about him following the Illini’s first spring practice.
“I was worried about taking a snap the first day last year,” Zook said. “Those are things you don’t have to worry about (now).”
For the first time since 2000, Illinois started spring practice coming off a bowl victory, a 38-14 rout of Baylor in the Texas Bowl. And for the first time since an unlikely appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl, Zook doesn’t appear on the hot seat.
There’s only one new face on Zook’s staff – secondary coach Mike Gillhamer fills the position vacated by former linebackers coach Dan Disch – following an almost complete staff overhaul a year ago.
Zook used the word stability several times to describe his team – which would have received sarcastic chuckles the last few years – during Tuesday’s press conference, adding that less turnover should help the Illini maintain momentum off the Texas Bowl win.
“The coaches know the players, the players know the coaches,” Zook said. “When you’re in a situation like that, you know the things the players can do well, do best.
“I think because of the stability, it allows you to expand on the things you’ve done well and either fix or get away from the things that maybe didn’t go quite as well.”
With coordinators Paul Petrino – who received a $50,000 raise to up his salary to $525,000 this year after leading a record-setting offense last season – and Vic Koenning helping the playcalling, Zook finally might have the right mix.
But after following a 9-4 season in 2007 with a 5-7, bowl-less 2008 season, Zook needs to see more progress to believe it.
“Our team understands that it’s going to be very important that we build on where we finished,” Zook said. “There’s no reason we shouldn’t improve in all three phases: offensively, defensively and special teams.”
Day 1 Notes:
- The Illini switched to morning practices – Tuesday’s session started at 7 a.m. and Thursday’s will start at 8 a.m. – this spring, a trend that may continue into the fall. Zook said more coaches across the nation are switching to morning practice, adding that some coaches believe it helps academics. Most college students might not like the early wake-up call, but Zook said some players like having their afternoons free of football. “We’re not starting that early, Zook said,
- CRAIG WILSON, an offensive lineman last season as a junior, moved across the line of scrimmage and will play defensive tackle in his final year of eligibility. Zook said he wanted to move the 6-foot-5, 320-pound Harvey native to defense last year but was “talked out of it by the offensive guys.” Zook likes Wilson’s NFL size and said the senior will play a significant role in the defensive line rotation in the fall.
- Zook said the main focus of the offense this spring is to improve the passing game. Sophomore quarterback NATHAN SCHEELHAASE improved as the season progressed during his first year as a starter, completing 59 percent of his passes for 1,044 yards, 13 touchdowns and just one interception over the last seven games. Zook wants to see his receivers turn short completions into long after-the-catch gains, a la the New England Patriots.
- Scheelhaase will be without leading receiver A.J. JENKINS (cracked wrist) and high-ceiling sophomore DARIUS MILLINES (stress fracture in foot) for the spring, allowing sophomores SPENCER HARRIS and RYAN LANKFORD to play even bigger roles in the offense. Senior FRED SYKES and redshirt freshmen FRITZ ROCK and ANTHONY WILLIAMS (who missed Tuesday’s practice due to academic issues, Zook said) also will compete for playing time in the rotation.
- A few more Illini were on the sidelines on Tuesday. Safety SUPO SANNI, recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon last season, went through individual workouts but sat during team drills. Fullback ZACH BECKER, recovering from a foot injury, worked on a bike, while safety STEVE HULL spent his morning on the StairMaster. Hull sprained an ankle playing a pickup basketball game during spring break, “which he was told not to do,” Zook said.
CHAMPAIGN – Bruce Weber calmed Illinois basketball fans’ nerves with just three words.
“Jereme is back,” Weber said.
At least for the short term.
Freshman Jereme Richmond returned to the University of Illinois campus, along with most students following a week off for spring break. Richmond, who was benched for the Illini’s two NCAA Tournament games for what Weber called a violation of athletic department rules, went through workouts with the team on Monday and – like all of his returning teammates - met with the Illini coaches.
Weber avoided giving a definitive answer on Richmond’s long-term status at Illinois, however.
“I mean, he’s here right now,” Weber said. “He’s part of the program. If he makes the progress he’s supposed to, then he’ll be there (next year).”
Richmond had the typical ups and downs of his freshmen season, but most of his setbacks came off the court.
Just as he seemed to get over the freshman hump, the Waukegan product was suspended for Jan. 15 road game at Wisconsin after missing practice for personal reasons. Richmond returned with a flurry, averaging 14 points and nine rebounds over the next four games. He earned Big Ten All-Freshman Team honors after averaging 7.4 points, 5.0 rebounds and 1.8 assists.
But then came the NCAA Tournament benching, following a reported altercation with teammates in the locker room after a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal loss to Michigan.
“He’s kind of like our team,” Weber said. “He had some shining moments and really showed well and showed like the kid can be special. But he also has to mature, grow up, be more consistent in all areas of his life.”
With four seniors graduating – including the top three leading scorers – Illinois was counting on Richmond to play a key, and possibly starring, role during the 2011-12 season.
The McDonald’s All-American displayed a natural leadership ability at times during his freshman season. But the fiery Richmond may have some kissing up to do after letting his teammates down when they needed him most.
“The one thing we need is leadership, where someone is demanding,” Weber said. “But if you’re going to be demanding then you got to be demanding of yourself.
“As long as he takes care of business, he should be fine.”
Tip-ins: Weber said the entire freshmen class should be on campus by June. The Illini currently have a four-man signing class – Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Mychael Henry and Mike Shaw – but also have a verbal commitment from Huntsville (Ala.) Lee wing Devin Langford, who can sign when the spring signing period begins on April 13 … Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, a redshirt senior, can sign a scholarship letter when he enrolls at Illinois in June … The Illini likely will play on a tour in Italy in August, Weber said. All freshmen would be eligible to play on the trip, thanks to a change to NCAA rules.
Weber addressed several other players that will play key roles next season:
D.J. Richardson: “We need someone to be the pied piper, to be the leader, to get guys in the gym, to take their games to another level. (Richardson) is a guy that I think everyone likes him. He’s got that personality. He’s fun-loving. He’d be the guy that can really do those type of things in the offseason.”
Crandall Head: “I’m not sure what position he is yet, but he can just be a great energy guy, a passion guy. …The kids like him. They like how hard he plays. You guys (media) have talked about it, he’s got to get his shot better. He’s got to take care of the ball better, but I loved his quickness, his energy and how he pushed the ball. And athletically, he can do some things.”
Brandon Paul: “Brandon’s just got to push his game to a whole ’nother (level). He’s got to do what he does in 10-12 minutes for 30 minutes. You look at the Vegas game (the NCAA Tournament win over UNLV) what he did in the first half is a great example of how good he could be but also how he doesn’t take it over to the second half. …He can be that explosive and talented, but he just has trouble pushing it and doing it again.”
Meyers Leonard: “I hope he wants it. I hope he pushes himself. Strength is a factor. Intensity. Just figuring out how to be a big man, I think, is probably his biggest thing.”
Joseph Bertrand: “He showed some glimmers, like he was making some progress. He is a (redshirt) freshman. He has the athleticism. I think he’s got to find a niche in our system, and maybe we’ve got to help him find a niche. What can he be? Can he be the athlete and get out? … That’s one thing he can do is get out in transition and make a basket, but in the halfcourt offense he’s got to find a niche.”
Illinois coaches Ron Zook and Bruce Weber both will hold press conferences on Tuesday. For maybe the first time in his six-year tenure at Illinois, the football coach may field less pointed queries than his basketball counterpart.
But after losing three All-Big Ten players that are expected to be taken in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft – defensive tackle Corey Liuget, running back Mikel Leshoure and linebacker Martez Wilson – Zook’s Illini still have plenty of questions to be answered during spring practice, which starts Tuesday at 7 a.m.
1. Will the Illini maintain momentum of the Texas Bowl win?
For the first time since 2000, the Illini head into the spring fresh off a bowl win, a 38-14 victory over Baylor in the Texas Bowl. Optimism abounds for a program seemingly surrounded with perennial cyniscm. But that was the story after the 2001 Big Ten championship season and subsequent Sugar Bowl bid (a 47-34 loss to LSU) as well as a surprise appearance in the 2008 Rose Bowl (a 49-17 loss to USC). Can the Illini finally break the streak and post back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1989-90? The odds seem in the Illini’s favor given the schedule (eight home games) and a seemingly more open Big Ten race given Ohio State’s suspensions. But we had similar thoughts in 2002 and 2008.
2. Will the offense take the next step in Year 2 of Paul Petrino?
It’s no wonder why Illinois offensive coordinator Paul Petrino received a $50,000 raise – he will make $525,000 next year – following his first season in Champaign. His accomplishments were extraordinary:
- The Illini set the school record for most points in a season (423) and tied a school record by averaging 32.5 points per game
- Running back Mikel Leshoure rushed for a school record 1,697 yards
- Redshirt freshman quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a school record for rushing yards in a season by a quarterback with 815
Leshoure will not be easy to replace, though Jason Ford is plenty capable and proven and Scheelhaase should ease the rushing burden on the backs. But the Illini offense seems posed for another big year. Three starters return to the offensive line – which looks like the strength of the entire Illini team – in addition to former starting tackle Corey Lewis, who sat out 2010 with a knee injury. Scheelhaase appears to play the part of quarterback/leader but led a passing attack that ranked 10th in the Big Ten. He must avoid the freshman-like, bad games (three interceptions in losses to Missouri and Michigan State). He never will have the strongest arm, but he has the benefit of returning leading receiver A.J. Jenkins to mix with developing, high-ceiling weapons, like sophomores Evan Wilson, Darius Millines and Ryan Lankford.
3. Who steps up in the front seven?
The Illini return just three starters in the front seven: bandit Michael Buchanan, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Martez Wilson. Jonathan Brown is the only returning linebacker with significant experience, while backup defensive linemen Glenn Foster, Wisdom Onyegbule, Tim Kynard and Darryle Ballew (the foursome combined for 14 tackles last year) must take on bigger roles to fill the holes. Wilson will be missed, but Liuget – possibly a top-20 pick in the NFL Draft – is the tougher spot to fill. Spence, a freshman All-American, could follow in Liuget’s footsteps in a few years, and the Illini might need that for the defense to look more like its early-season self (allowed 124 points over the first eight games) than the late-season collapse (155 points over the last four regular season games).
4. Can the Illini secondary be the strength of the defense?
The front seven may have questions, but the back four starters could be set. Three starters return – safeties Trulon Henry and Tavon Wilson (he could return to cornerback) and cornerback Justin Green – and possibly the team’s best athlete (junior Terry Hawthorne) likely will fill the other spot after having time to return from nagging injuries. The group improved from the 100th-ranked passing defense in 2009 to the 61st last season and helped the team go from an NCAA-worst five interceptions in 2009 to 11 interceptions last season. With four players capable of playing at the next level, the group has the talent to make the jump from average to special.
This time, Illini fans, you can’t question heart. This time, you can’t question toughness.
But you can question talent and execution.
An Illinois team known for whimpering away from fights gave its all during a 73-59 third round NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas on Sunday, but that wasn’t enough to beat the top-seeded Jayhawks.
Former UI coach Bill Self has constructed a juggernaut in Lawrence, advancing to his fourth Sweet 16 in five seasons. Illinois’ Bruce Weber departs the tournament with his first NCAA win (73-62 over UNLV on Friday) with a roster full of players he recruited, but a double-digit loss to his predecessor won’t silence the fans still yearning for the Self-built program.
Mike Davis (17 points, seven rebounds) and Mike Tisdale (13 points, 11 rebounds) were solid for ninth-seeded Illinois, but the Twins Morris (Markieff and Marcus) rammed through and leapt over Illini’s skinny posts for a combined 41 points and 24 rebounds.
Illinois (20-14) needed its one special player to be special to pull off the upset, and Kansas (34-2) knew it. The Jayhawks’ aggressive defense on Demetri McCamey frustrated and gassed the Illini point guard, who was held in single digits (six points on 2-for-9 shooting) for the first time since Purdue held him to four points on Feb. 13.
The Illini trailed for the final 38:34 but made it interesting, whittling the KU lead to four with 11:33 remaining and to five at the 6:44 mark.
Dreams ensued of the Illini getting through to the Sweet Sixteen as the highest seed remaining in the Southwest Regional – No. 12 Richmond, No. 11 VCU and No. 10 Virginia Tech advanced – but quickly faded during the last six-and-a-half minutes as the long jumpers from the Illini (38 percent shooting) continued to clank and the Jayhawks (52 percent) slammed the ball through the cylinder with three straight dunks during a 10-0 run.
The faster, stronger, more self-assured team won.
The Illini seniors – Bill Cole, Davis, McCamey and Tisdale – depart with a tournament win and pride knowing they gave it all in Tulsa, not always a given for the recruiting class of 2007.
But the questioning has just begun for Weber. Without the graduating foursome, his program enters the great unknown – a picture made murkier with the Tournament suspension of Big Ten All-Freshmen honoree Jereme Richmond for violation of team rules.
Entering his ninth season at Illinois, Weber might face his toughest task. He must replace four starters who account for 59 percent of his scoring including his top three scorers, find a leader with no returning seniors on the roster (Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco will join the team this summer) and count on significant contributions from seldom-used underclassmen and four incoming freshmen.
Does he have the talent – three straight top-25 recruiting classes suggests he does – and can he mold that talent to execute his gameplan? All good questions to ponder until October.
Call them late bloomers.
But the Illini finally seemed to learn from a year of missed opportunities and late collapses, showing an unforeseen sense of urgency at the most urgent hour of the season.
“I remember (senior center Mike) Tisdale in the huddle every TV timeout he said, ‘Keep your foot on the pedal. Keep your foot on the pedal,’” Mike Davis said after the ninth-seeded Illini’s 73-62 second round NCAA Tournament win over eighth-seeded UNLV at the BOK Center in Tulsa. “So, that’s what we did.”
Bruce Weber’s already salt-and-pepper mane may have more salt after the 2010-11 escapades, but he couldn’t have asked for a better Friday night in Tulsa.
“We played like we expected to all season,” Weber said.
The final score doesn’t do justice of the ninth-seeded Illini’s dominance of UNLV (24-9) in the second round of the Southwest Regional.
The Illini (20-13) defense set the tone, packing the lane and daring the Rebels to shoot. UNLV obliged, missing eight straight from beyond the arc as the Illini’s run-and-gun tempo built a 22-point halftime lead. The Illini finished with 18 fastbreak points.
The four seniors avoided the reputation as the class to leave Illinois with no tournament wins, combining for 47 points. Demetri McCamey looked like the December, possible All-America version. He looked like the NBA player on a college court, shredding the Rebels defense for 17 points and seven assists. The once-inconsistent Mike Davis continued his two-month A-game with 22 points, nine rebounds and five assists.
“We were fighting for our lives. We knew if we lost this game it was the last one for the seniors and the last one in an Illini uniform for the seniors,” McCamey said. “We didn’t want that to happen.”
The sophomore guards handled the Rebels’ pressure defense. One (Brandon Paul) was active everywhere with eight points, four assists and a career-high eight rebounds, while the other (D.J. Richardson) had his best performance in a month, shooting a perfect 4-for-4 including two threes to maintain Illini’s lead late.
Even freshmen Crandall Head and Meyers Leonard contributed four points. The only cog missing was Big Ten All-Freshmen Team honoree Jereme Richmond, who was benched for a “violation of athletic department, team rules,” according to Weber. The Illini coach said the team will “talk about” Richmond’s status for Sunday’s third-round game with No. 1 seed Kansas.
But what would have been a major storyline with a loss became notebook material following the Illini’s first NCAA Tournament post-Dee Brown.
“I think the fans bring it up, talk about it then you guys talk about it,” Weber said of Illinois winning its first NCAA game in 1,828 days. “It meant something to our kids, our seniors. Now, I hope they want more.”
NCAA Tournament: No. 9 Illinois (19-13) vs. No. 8 UNLV (24-8)
Site: BOK Center, Tulsa, Okla.
8:20 p.m., TBS – Marv Albert (play-by-play), Steve Kerr (analyst), Craig Sager (sideline reporter)
This is it.
That’s been the mantra for the four Illini seniors – Bill Cole, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale – this season.
But with a loss to eighth-seeded UNLV tonight, there’s no tomorrow, no next game for the ninth-seeded Illini to pick up the pieces of an underwhelming senior campaign that went from Final Four hopefuls (beginning the season 10-1) to NCAA Tournament thankfuls (losing 10 of 16 to end the season).
“I can’t live in regret,” said Mike Davis, averaging 13.9 points and 7.9 rebounds over his last 13 games. “I have to go out there and do it. The pain of regret will stay with you for life.”
Legacy is on the collective mind of this constantly critiqued class.
The face of Illinois basketball for most of the last three seasons – Illinois has no juniors and the most productive player from last year’s graduating class was Dominique Keller and his 4.5 points per game – the foursome has put up some impressive numbers: 357 combined starts and 4,532 combined points.
McCamey is the NCAA’s active leader with 719 assists and ranks sixth on the Illini’s career scoring list (1,695 points). Davis and Tisdale both surpassed 1,000 career points. Davis is second on the school’s career rebounding list (893), and Tisdale needs three blocks to tie Deon Thomas’ school record for blocked shots.
But the most important stat – wins – have been lacking since the foursome came to Illinois in 2007. The Illini are 80-57 overall and 35-37 in Big Ten play since Warren Carter and Rich McBride graduated and were replaced by the current seniors, who don’t want to be remembered as the class that couldn’t graduate with an NCAA Tournament win.
“To change the culture of what’s been happening the last four years, just to get a win would be huge,” Cole said.
“I think just going out as a winner or just winning a basketball game in the NCAA Tournament just definitely releases the stress for the fans and all the coaches and everything,” said McCamey, who’s busted out of his midseason slump by averaging 16.6 points the last seven games. “I think it probably will erase the bad memories.”
They have the chance to shake the infamy tonight in Tulsa.
“I want people to memorize this team,” Davis said, “as a talented team that struggled in the season but finished on a great postseason note.”
KEYS TO THE GAME
1. Sophs step up
Much of the focus is on the Illini seniors, but they’ve played well recently. McCamey, Davis and Tisdale have accounted for 64.5 percent of Illinois’ scoring over the last seven games. But they’ve received little help from their youthful peers.
Sophomore D.J. Richardson continues his nosedive in production, totaling 17 points over the last seven games. Classmate Brandon Paul has provided energy but inconsistency is still the name of his game. He’s averaged three turnovers the last three games and 7.7 points over the last seven.
For Illinois to beat a guard-heavy UNLV team, Paul and Richardson don’t need to scorch the nets but have to play more like veterans than freshmen.
“They can come back next year and do some damage next year,” Davis said. “I don’t know if they’re thinking like that, but they can’t let them think like that. We got to let these guys know it’s the last game for us and to help us out and to go hard for us. I know they will though because they love us, they look up to us and we’re like their big brothers.”
2. Not that feeling again
Get the feeling that you’ve watching the same game on repeat this season?
Illinois’ latest collapse – a 60-55 loss to Michigan after holding a 12-point lead with eight minutes remaining – suggests the Illini suffer from a case of the oh-no-this-can’t-be-happening-again syndrome.
“We can’t play uptight. We have to play loose, free, confident,” Weber said. “We played a one seed in Ohio State, we played a two seed in (North) Carolina, we played a three seed in Purdue and competed with them. We played a four seed in Wisconsin and beat them. We’ve beaten Gonzaga on the road. We’ve played top teams, so we can compete with everybody. Now we just have to put it together for 40 minutes and hopefully another opportunity after that.”
Easier said than done, especially with the pressure of an increasingly angry and vocal fanbase on the shoulders of the 18- to 22-year-olds.
“I don’t know if you can change it,” Davis said. “You just got to go out there and play kind of loose but also on edge, just knowing that if you lose it’s over.”
3. Handle the pressure
Illinois finished just four games this season with less than 10 turnovers. Using a mix of full-court pressure, extended perimeter defense and traps, UNLV forces 16.2 turnovers per game.
Bruce Weber compared the Rebels’ defensive aggressiveness to Purdue.
“They’ll pick you up at full court and make you guard, make you bring the ball up against pressure pretty much the entire game,” Weber said. “They use their depth, athleticism to kind of wear you down.”
With just one point guard, the Illini ballhandling at times is careless – especially when McCamey rests. More pressure will be on Paul, Richardson and 6-foot-7 freshman forward Jereme Richmond to take care of the ball and on the Illinois posts to help break UNLV’s Missouri-like press.
Prediction: UNLV 64, Illinois 61
Does Illinois have the talent to win an NCAA Tournament game? Yes. But UNLV’s roster is filled with transfers from several elite programs, including Kansas (leading scorer Tre’Von Willis), UCLA (leading rebounder Chase Stanback), Memphis (bruiser Quintrell Thomas) and Kentucky (guard Derrick Jasper, who Weber recruited). A sizeable height advantage in the post should help the Illini, but the Rebels share the rebounding responsibilities throughout the roster (nine players average more than two rebounds per game). Illinois enters as a 1.5-point underdog but hasn’t pulled a Vegas upset since winning at then-ranked Minnesota on Feb. 10. This is an even matchup, but nothing from recent games suggests the Illini finally will overcome the odds and beat a good team from Vegas.
Demetri McCamey sees all the eyes on him.
The Illinois senior doesn’t just feel the stares from the critics who say the point guard has underwhelmed this season – his averages of 14.8 points and 6.1 assists are down from 15.1 and 7.1 last season – but he often sees the dilated pupils of his teammates locked on him, especially in the final minutes of close games.
The Illini’s late-game struggles are well-documented. Illinois (19-13) has led or tied in the second half in 11 of its 13 losses.
The latest collapse – a 60-55 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten quarterfinals in which Illinois held a 51-39 lead with 8:35 remaining – was excruciating. McCamey deferred to teammates as Michigan finished the game on a 21-4 run. His last shot attempt came with 7:40 remaining.
“I think I was a little settled-in (against Michigan) and just passing knowing they were doubling me and just trying to make sure I make the best pass instead of just trying to be aggressive and get to the basket,” McCamey said.
“You can see everybody relies on me, so at the end of the day it’s going to be in my hands and I got to make the right decision if I have to pass or go all the way.”
McCamey, by far Illinois’ best player, must be more aggressive in crunch time. He’s said as much.
UConn’s Kemba Walker demands the ball when the game is on the line. So do Ben Hansbrough (Notre Dame), Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin) and Talor Battle (Penn State), three of the better lead guards in the country.
But McCamey needs help if ninth-seeded Illinois is to beat eigth-seeded UNLV (24-8) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, 8 p.m. on TBS.
Too often, Illini teammates toss the ball around like a hot potato, passing the responsibility of taking the big shot.
“We just kind of watch Demetri, waiting for someone to make a play,” senior Mike Davis said. “Guys have to make plays themselves. We have enough players. We have enough talent. Guys can score the ball. It’s incredible. You come watch practice. Come watch a whole day of practice, different guys score every single time, and we have to do that in a game. Guys have to be as confident as they are in practice in a game.”
Davis said he and senior center Mike Tisdale must screen better. Probably, but that’s never been a strength for the lanky posts during their four seasons in orange and blue. Too often the Illini have relied on ball screens, an easy set to defend for opponents that have scouted Illinois.
McCamey said the team has added late-game plays in practice aiming to free McCamey for an open shot off the ball, but that relies on the unconfident ballhandling of Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul to set up the play.
And confidence or lack thereof is one of the reasons Illinois late struggles.
“When we get a lead, we’re almost scared to lose,” senior center Mike Tisdale said. “That’s kind of how teams lose. We just have to keep pushing, keep the foot on the pedal.”
The other explanations: lack of leadership and killer instinct.
“We just have to finish games. We can’t play 32 minutes,” Davis said. “It’s not a high school game. You got to play 40.”
“Someone has to take over. Someone’s got to demand the ball and score.”
It looks like it better be the point guard McCamey. That’s what the eyes are saying on the court.
Lon Kruger’s time at Illinois was short, but plenty of sweet moments littered his four seasons as the Illini head coach. Kruger quickly elevated Illinois from a middle-of-the pack Big Ten team, winning a conference title in his second season (1997-98) at the helm with a group of overachieving, fan-favorite seniors.
Even when the Illini took a step back the next season with a 3-13 conference mark, Kruger’s 11th-seeded freshmen-packed squad won the hearts of many fans with a run to the Big Ten Tournament championship game. Kruger left following the 1999-2000 season – his third season ranked in the AP’s final top-25 poll – taking the head job with the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, finishing his Illini career with an 81-42 overall record.
Following three unsuccessful seasons with the Hawks and a year as an assistant with the New York Knicks, Kruger was hired as the head of the storied UNLV program. It took seven seasons, but finally he will play Illinois in Friday’s NCAA second-round matchup at 8:20 p.m. on TBS.
Kruger, coach of the eighth-seeded Rebels (24-8), talked with media Tuesday about the matchup with the ninth-seeded Illini (19-13), his memories of Illinois and his relationship with current Illini coach Bruce Weber.
On Friday’s game …
“Very tough first-round draw, obviously. From our perspective, our players know the tradition of Illinois basketball and know the talents that they have. Coach Weber does a great job, and we know that they’ll be prepared well and play hard, so our guys are excited about playing and look forward to our first-round matchup.”
On the Rebels’ reaction to earning a No. 8 seed …
“I don’t think the players worry too much about that. I think our fans probably more so than the players. Players are just excited to be playing. Again, we know Illinois and the traditions. We don’t know their individuals too much, but players aren’t too concerned about the seed. They’re just excited to be playing.”
On his team’s makeup …
“We’ve had good success with transfers, most of which we recruited out of high school. They go to another school then we got them coming back the second time around, and they’ve done well. (Leading scorer Tre’Von) Willis is a senior, and (derrick) Jasper’s a senior: two guys we recruited out of high school. Both have been injured at times, Derrick more severely than Tre. It’s hard to believe they’re both seniors but they’ve both been productive in different ways and other guys too. We have a combination of transfers and younger guys that have been here for three or four years too.”
On his reaction to being matched up with Illinois …
“It got my attention for sure. Our guys probably didn’t even know I coached at Illinois, so I don’t think that’s a factor from a players’ perspective. (My wife) Barb and I probably the good part of it is we get to see some folks we haven’t seen in a while, people we always enjoyed talking to. We loved our time in Champaign. (Illinois athletic director) Ron Guenther, of course, is a terrific athletic director and always appreciated that relationship and all he did for us.”
On if his coaching style has changed since leaving Illinois …
“Probably different from our time at Illinois in that we’re more full-court, we’re pressuring a little bit more, trapping a little bit more occasionally in the backcourt. We’re not a big team but pretty active and always try to do things like always try to do: take advantage of the strength of your people.”
On his fondest memories at Illinois …
“A lot of memories, a lot of really good memories. Of course, the group that won the Big Ten championship (in 1998). Any time you win a championship, those are special. You like those memories. That group of seniors were critical to the development of the program. Then on the other end of it you have the group from Peoria with Serg (Sergio McClain) and his gang that was critical to help the program respond.
“Really good young group. You always like that. That’s a credit to the Peoria guys making a commitment to coming over, and they affected the recruitment of a lot of other guys too.”
On the establishment of charitable group Orange Krush Foundation in 1998 …
“Ron (Guenther) and I sat down and talked about it and the student involvement was the biggest key of course in the success of the Orange Krush. But Ron was the driving force behind that with his support.”
On his hiring at UNLV in 2004 …
“Any time as a coach, you hope they’re looking for someone with integrity anywhere. But we’ve really enjoyed our time here. Barb and I love living here. People are great, and they love their basketball – much like the people at Illinois. They are passionate about basketball and are very supportive. It’s been a good experience for us for sure.”
On his relationship with Bruce Weber …
“I’ve known Bruce for a long, a long time, more through just the recruiting and crossing paths recruiting. Watching his teams play, how hard they play, how organized they are, they’re really solid fundamentally defensively, good motion offense. I just respect his teams and how good of a job he does.”