Illini fight for NCAA tournament bid

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By Eric Chima

Earlier this season, Bruce Weber issued a challenge to his reeling basketball team: get to 21 wins, and let everything else work itself out. Since then, they have gone through injuries, accidents and allegations, but now, finally, the goal is in sight.

The Illini head into Saturday’s game at Penn State with 20 wins in hand, two games to play, and a legitimate chance at third place in the Big Ten. More importantly, they will be playing each game with a berth in the NCAA Tournament at stake.

“Until your name shows up on that screen on that Sunday, you can’t let down,” Weber said. “They have to keep driving. Twenty wins used to be the magical number, but I don’t think it is now.”

The Illini find themselves rooting against teams like Florida State and Texas Tech as much as their traditional Big Ten rivals as the entire nation pushes for lucrative at-large berths. With only a road game at Iowa remaining after Penn State, the Illini need to take care of business in Happy Valley to reach Weber’s goal and leave a positive final impression in the minds of voters.

The Nittany Lions were projected by some to be a surprise this year, but have lost 12 straight in the Big Ten to land themselves in the cellar. Six of those 12 opponents topped 70 points, a mark the Illini have reached just once in Big Ten play all season. Penn State appeared to gel, though, in pushing top-ranked Ohio State to the brink twice in the past 10 days.

“I think a lot of people here thought they would be the surprise in the league,” Weber said. “They had some injuries early, they lost some disappointing games, it just seems like they haven’t clicked. We just have to hope they’re not making that progress where they’re clicking (now).”

Last year, the Illini had their tournament bid well in hand when they slipped against the Nittany Lions to end their home winning streak and cost themselves a shot at the conference title. Weber said the team would have to watch film of last year’s disappointment in the days leading up to the game.

“Tomorrow that thing is going to be plastered up there somewhere,” Weber said. “That probably lost us the Big Ten Championship and might have cost us a top-four seed and staying close to home. We have some revenge (on our minds).”