Home > Illinois basketball > Illini seniors look to shake infamy, win first NCAA Tournament game

Illini seniors look to shake infamy, win first NCAA Tournament game

NCAA Tournament: No. 9 Illinois (19-13) vs. No. 8 UNLV (24-8)

Southwest Regional

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.

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Categories: Illinois basketball
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