Home > Illinois basketball > Illini look to shoo away bubble, starting with Minnesota

Illini look to shoo away bubble, starting with Minnesota

Illinois (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6 Big Ten)

TV: ESPN, 8 p.m. – Bob Wischusen (play-by-play) and Stephen Bardo (analyst)

Urgency never has been a characteristic of this Illinois basketball senior class.

But sitting on the bubble of the NCAA Tournament for the second straight season with a challenging eight-game conference schedule remaining, the four Illini (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) seniors – Bill Cole, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis – must rid their laidback ways.

“We’re not running,” Davis said. “We’re not cutting hard. We’re not defending like we should. We’re walking around on defense. We’ve said it in all the meetings. We keep saying the same things over and over. But for some guys, it’s not clicking.”

If the season ended today, Illinois likely would be included in the NCAA Tournament’s field of 68.

“I still think we’re in great shape,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said, citing top-30 rankings in strength of schedule and RPI. “I think that’s too far away to talk about.”

But Selection Sunday is still 30 days away, seemingly too much time for this inconsistent, underachieving Illini squad to count on current projections – especially after losing four of their last five games to miss last season’s NCAA Tournament.

The seniors know the current numbers – a 31-33 Big Ten record, one NCAA Tournament appearance and no NCAA Tournament wins during their four years – don’t leave a positive lasting legacy of their time Champaign-Urbana.

“This is it,” Davis said. “I don’t want to go out a loser. I want to go out with a bang. I want to go back to the tournament and make some noise. We got to grind these last couple games and do it.”

Added Tisdale said: “This is the last thing people will remember. You’re always as good as your last game. We have a lot to prove. We got some games left where we can do some damage, hopefully.”

The first step off the bubble includes a win at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6 Big Ten), a squad also on the bubble following three straight losses and a fall from the rankings, tonight. But the Gophers’ 62-60 win over Illinois at the Assembly Hall last year ultimately sent the Illini to the National Invitational Tournament.

Weber said this week that one of this team’s too-nice demeanor is a downfall, that they have lacked the killer instinct to battle through adversity and win tight games on the road. But has the Illini’s nerve been struck after being pushed around by five of the last seven opponents?

“We’re not down. We’re disappointed,” Davis said during a Tuesday rant. “We’re better than what we’re showing, that’s what’s the sad part about it. Losing these games by five or less points and a bucket here or a bucket there or a rebound there, that just sucks.

“We should have only lost three games this whole season probably. Three games at the most. That’s the disappointing thing. We should be a top-10 team in the country. Go look at the tape.

“It’s just preparation. It’s about having your mind right. You can’t go into a game thinking you’re going to blow someone out. You’re not going to do that in the Big Ten. You have to go into the game trying to win it by one point.”

To have a chance to back up the preseason printing of those “Houston 2011” T-shirts (Houston is the site of this year’s Final Four), the Illini have to bring that swagger and that bite to the court – for once.

“We had a lot of hype at the beginning of the season: Final Four, welcome to the Big Dance and all that before the season started but we’re at the point of the season now where we’re kind of on our heels,” sophomore guard D.J. Richardson said. “We got to find a way to change it around.”

Prediction

Minnesota 57, Illinois 54

Illinois is the more talented team, but how do you pick the Illini (1-4 on the road in the Big Ten) to win at The Barn? Illinois should have a huge advantage at guard, with Minnesota lacking two early season starters (Al Nolen is out with a foot injury and Devoe Joseph is transferring), but that assumes that Demetri McCamey and D.J. Richardson don’t continue their current slumps. Up front, Minnesota is big, bulky, athletic and physical – the opposite of Illinois. Expect the Gophers to own the boards and points in the paint. And expect the Illini to start slow then pick up the pace only to falter down the stretch. It’d be foolish at the point to expect any different.

Jeremy Werner is co-host of the “Tay and J Show,” which airs on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and on www.myconnectfm.com. Post your comments below or e-mail Jeremy atjeremy@myconnectfm.com.

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