Home > Illinois basketball > Have Illini recaptured early-season mojo?

Have Illini recaptured early-season mojo?

CHAMPAIGN – Illinois players stood in the huddle wide-eyed and worried as they held onto a three-point lead over Michigan with 0:42 lit up on the Assembly Hall jumbotron.

The sky appeared to be falling after D.J. Richardson missed the front-end of a one-and-one free-throw attempt followed by Darius Morris hit a top-of-the-key jumper. Bill Cole then split a pair of free throws, and Stu Douglass’ left-handed, last-second three-point attempt grazed the front of the rim.

Gasp.

Following four losses in six games, Illinois had escaped a resume-killing home loss but had the self-esteem of Eeyore.

Three weeks later, Illinois – including eighth-year head coach Bruce Weber – says it has the ability to win this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament. The Illini (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) must beat the Wolverines (19-12, 9-9) in today’s quarterfinal first.

“I think we have the most talent from one to nine in the conference,” said senior Mike Davis, who added the team is playing “harder” in the last four games than it has all season. “So we can do it. We just have to take our time, go out there and play hard and go play Illinois basketball and we’ll be all right.”

Don’t take that as cockiness. This team still hasn’t shown that certitude on the floor in close games against good teams, losing second-half leads or ties in 10 of its 12 losses.

But following double-digit wins over Big Ten cellar dwellars Indiana and Iowa and solid fights in road losses to ninth-ranked Purdue and top-ranked Ohio State, could the Illini have regained their mojo?

“When you lose games, it takes a toll on you mentally because you hear it from everybody when you lose,” Weber said. “Everybody’s analyzing it. You’re trying to figure it out. Then you lose another one and another one and another one and they’re all close games that you feel you had so we probably lost some confidence.

“I’ve compared it to the puzzle. We had the puzzle pretty well put together early. It got messed up. Now, we’re putting those pieces back into the puzzle and slowly but surely getting them where we maybe have a clear picture again of where we are.”

The Illini showed during its nonconference schedule that it can play with, and beat, some of the best teams in the country. A six-point overtime loss to Texas (now ranked No. 10 in the AP poll) and wins over North Carolina (ranked No. 6 in this week’s poll) and Gonzaga (West Coast Conference champion) still make the Illini almost an NCAA Tournament lock despite the results this weekend.

But close losses to UIC, Indiana and Northwestern and a blowout loss to Ohio State show the Illini probably are closer to mediocre than elite. But improved play from struggling sophomores Brandon Paul (32.5 percent shooting during the last six games) and Richardson (15 points over six games) could make the Illini dangerous in this weekend’s single-elimination tournament.

“If we come together at the right time, anybody can win it,” senior center Mike Tisdale said. “It’s been proven.”

Well, only twice have teams seeded lower than third won the tournament: fourth-seeded Michigan in 1998 and sixth-seeded Iowa in 2001. But every seed with the exception of the seventh seed has been represented in the conference tournament title game.

The current seniors were freshmen on the 10th-seeded Illini team – led by seniors Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle – that unexpectedly won three games in the 2008 tournament before losing to top-seeded Wisconsin in the championship game.

The Illini’s road to the conference championship game likely goes through top-seeded Ohio State, to whom the Illini have lost five straight including a 19-point loss to the Buckeyes on Feb. 22.

Despite that, the Illini at least sound like a united, confident group – a far cry from three weeks ago when Stu Douglass’ prayer shot went unanswered.

“I think we’re playing good basketball right now. I wouldn’t say (we’re) peaking, but it’s always good to play your best basketball late in the season, especially come postseason, Big Ten Tournament, things like that,” freshman Jereme Richmond said. “I feel like we’re clicking right now, for sure.”

 

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