Counting down to Columbus

By Erin Foley

Their eighth straight NCAA Tournament berth brought elation. It brought hugs, cheers and a sigh of relief.

Now, three days after the announcement, head coach Bruce Weber has heard analysts discuss how Illinois (23-11) was one of the last two teams to get into the Big Dance and are therefore not deserving of the honor. At the same time, he’s heard talk of how the Illini could prove people wrong.

He’s not sure what to make of the contradictions. But he does know that even though Illinois didn’t have much strength against Wisconsin on Saturday in the semi-finals of the Big Ten Tournament, it stayed competitive against one of the nation’s top teams.

“We get a nice reward for staying strong and tough, and I think that’s been the biggest improvement on our team, the mental toughness, the mental preparation,” Weber said. “That has helped us have some success down the stretch.”

The Illini have won five of their last seven games which should prove beneficial when they open first-round play against Virginia Tech (21-11) at 6:10 p.m. on Friday at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Virginia Tech, making its first Tournament appearance in 11 years, earned the fifth seed in the West Region and are coming off a 72-64 loss to North Carolina State in the semifinals of the ACC Tournament.

While there are some who question the Illini’s ability, Weber said what’s important is that they made it in.

“That’s all that matters, and now we have to take advantage of it,” Weber said. “That’s what I’ve really emphasized to the kids.”

After its Tournament berth was left in the hands of the selection committee, Illinois knows it’s up to them to earn the respect they deserve. Senior Rich McBride says Illinois must go out and prove themselves and sophomore Chester Frazier thinks they have a lot to play for.

In order to be competitive against Virginia Tech, the Illini will have to increase their offensive production and score more than the 41 points they put up against Wisconsin.

“We’ve watched them quite a bit; I know guys in my apartment, Warren (Carter), CJ (Jackson), Trent (Meacham) and myself, we’ve seen a lot of games, we’ve seen a lot of film and they’re a tough team – very athletic,” junior Brian Randle said. “Four scorers in double figures, going in for an ACC Championship in the last week of the season, and, obviously, they have weapons and they’re to be respected.”

Increased scoring production could come from senior Rich McBride, who is averaging 9.5 points per game.

His scoring has dropped off as of late – just nine points against Wisconsin and only 1-of-9 from three-point range against Penn State, but Weber thinks it’s because of the number of minutes he has logged this season.

He played 41 minutes in Illinois’ overtime win against Indiana.

“I think the minutes have taken a toll on him, and I don’t know this for a fact, but he has lost a little bit of confidence shooting, even in practice,” Weber said. “(Monday) we did a lot of shooting, and he stayed a little bit extra, trying to get some confidence and get his stroke back.”

While Weber said he knows it will be Illinois’ defense that wins the game for them if they are able to limit the Hokies guard play and contain their transition and dribble, he also said they must find a way to score at the other end.

Although they have had their struggles as of late, Frazier thinks the Illini will be just fine.

“I think when it comes time to play and we have everybody fresh, we get our legs back, I’m sure we will come to play,” Frazier said.

Still unsure whether Illinois has the quickness or athleticism to stay with Virginia Tech, Weber said he takes pride in preparing for games and is looking forward to facing a team not from the Big Ten.

Said Randle: “They like to get up and down, and they like to run, get out and dunk, so they mix it up. But we’ve seen a lot of different offense, a lot of different schemes, so I think we will be pretty well prepared.”