Weber looks to center Pruitt to provide ‘spark’ for team



By Jason Grodsky

Illinois head coach Bruce Weber made it clear that his team will go as far as senior forward Shaun Pruitt takes them.

With two games remaining in a disappointing regular season, the Illini will depend on Pruitt to provide the spark that Weber hopes will ignite his team to a strong finish.

“When (Shaun) is effective, like he was at Iowa, it makes us a much better team and a competitor,” Weber said.

Weber looked to Illinois’ road win over Iowa on Saturday as proof, when his senior big man led the team in points (18), rebounds (seven) and shooting percentage (70 percent), and even made all four of his free throw attempts.

For Pruitt to be effective against No. 17 Michigan State (23-6, 11-5 Big Ten) on Thursday night, it will have to be a team effort.

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Weber said if the Illini (12-17, 4-12) fail to shoot the ball well, it creates more of a challenge to get the team’s leading scorer the ball and involve him in the offense.

“When we don’t shoot the ball well, teams tend to play zone against us and it becomes hard to get Shaun the ball,” Weber said. “Part of it is that we’re not a great passing team. When we can’t get it to him, he has struggled and we have struggled.”

Illinois’ meeting with the Spartans earlier this season in East Lansing, Mich., is a perfect example.

In a very physical and defense-orientated game, the Illini shot just 30 percent from the field, while Pruitt scored a season-low five points in a 51-41 defeat.

After the game, Weber and his players credited their opponent’s solid defensive effort, but this time around it is Michigan State’s offense and leader Drew Neitzel that has the Illinois coaching staff buzzing.

Neitzel scored a game-high 15 points against Illinois in their last meeting to lead the Spartans to a come from behind win. Meanwhile, Michigan State is coming off arguably their best performance of this season, knocking off No. 18 Indiana 103-74.

“They looked like a Final Four team on Sunday against Indiana,” Weber said. “When (Neitzel) has shot the ball well and plays at a high level, he carries them. It takes pressure off their freshmen, and they become a balanced team.”

It has been over two months since the Illini enjoyed winning back-to-back games, with wins over Missouri and Loyola (MD.) on Dec. 22 and Dec. 28, respectively. But with just two games left, the team feels it could be on the brink of ending the season on a high note.

“Everyone realizes it’s been a disappointing season, but we have to deal with the circumstances we have and make the most of it,” Weber said. “We haven’t played as well at home as we have in the past, so it would be nice if we could perform well for the seniors and our fans that have been very supportive of us. Maybe we can build some confidence and go into the Big Ten Tournament without any pressure and make a run.”

Randle could play in final game

Senior forward Brain Randle is doing all he can to make his way back on the court for his final home game in an Illinois uniform.

Randle, who has been sidelined with a sprained shoulder suffered against Wisconsin two weeks ago, was involved in some shooting drills at practice on Monday.

The 6-foot-8 Peoria, Ill., native was told by doctors it is improbably he could sustain any more damage to the shoulder, and while Weber doesn’t expect him to play Thursday against Michigan State, Randle could, depending on his conditioning and timing, make his way back for Illinois’ final game of the season versus Minnesota on Saturday.

“It’s up to Brian to see if he can go and get his legs under him,” Weber said. “He’s a great athlete so getting his conditioning back shouldn’t be too hard, but it’s more about getting his timing back.”