Illinois must recover

By Lucas Deal

For the last month, the Illinois men’s basketball team has been seated squarely on the NCAA Tournament bubble. While the Illini have won almost every game they’ve been expected to over that time, they haven’t been able to add any signature wins to push them firmly into the tournament field.

With a week to prepare for Saturday’s game at Iowa, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber hoped his team would have enough time to create a legitimate game plan, take down the Hawkeyes and all but stamp its ticket to the Big Dance.

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Weber thought his team could take advantage of its break to figure out a way to finally win a quality road game. But instead, the Illini are once again forced to clean the bad tastes out of their mouths after falling 60-53 to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City, Iowa.

“We have 10 losses, and we’ve had the lead in the second half of them eight times,” Illini head coach Bruce Weber said. “We haven’t been able to make shots; we haven’t been able to make plays.”

A win on Saturday would have made Illinois 22-9 overall, 10-6 in the Big Ten and guaranteed a tie for no worse than third place.

A win would have made the Illini awfully hard to be overlooked by the NCAA Committee.

But the Illini (21-10, 9-7) didn’t get the win, and now they enter this weekend’s Big Ten Tournament desperately in need of some quality wins to impress the committee before Selection Sunday.

“We have to win on Thursday – at least – to maintain a chance,” Weber said.

Early in Saturday’s game, the Illini looked poised to get the win they’ve so badly needed.

Warren Carter opened the scoring with eight straight points and Rich McBride added a pair of threes to give the Illini an early lead.

However, a pair of quick fouls on McBride and a leg injury to Carter left the Illini without their hot hands and the Hawkeyes quickly rallied.

The game swayed back and forth for much of the second half and was tied at 49 when Shaun Pruitt stepped to the free-throw line with 3:54 to go.

Had Pruitt made just one of his two attempts, I think the Illini would have remained in control of the game and in position to get the win.

I say that because up until Pruitt stepped to the line, Illinois had made all but one of its free-throw attempts. The Hawkeyes’ crowd was chanting heavily, but the Illini hadn’t seemed to notice.

Pruitt was already having a great game.

Dropping two free throws on an obnoxious Hawkeyes fan base would have really pushed the Illini into position to take the win.

But he missed them both, and the Hawkeyes responded with back-to-back threes by Tony Freeman to take a 55-49 lead and effectively end the game.

Now the Illini have their work cut out for them. They can’t put their heads down, and they can’t give up. Sure, winning on Saturday would have been huge, but this doesn’t mean it’s all over.

As the No. 6 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, the Illini will have a winnable opening-round game on Thursday afternoon, and if they can win they’ll face the No. 3 seed, Indiana, on Friday.

Win both games and I think the Illini will be in for sure.

Split them or lose the first game and its going to be very close.

Weber hopes it won’t matter though. He hopes they go to Chicago and make a statement. He said once the Illini get to the United Center on Thursday, he wants to stay awhile.

If the Illini want off the bubble, I don’t think they have any other choice.

Lucas Deal is a senior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected]