Illini hope momentum carries into tourney

Calvin Brock dives for the ball against Minnesota March 8, 2008. Jeremy Berg

Calvin Brock dives for the ball against Minnesota March 8, 2008. Jeremy Berg

By Jeff LaBelle

Illinois finished the last two months of the season without back-to-back wins, after dropping contests to every ranked opponent it faced and losing at least once to all but three Big Ten teams.

Needless to say, it wasn’t the sort of consistency Illinois head coach Bruce Weber had hoped for entering this season.

“I can write stuff on the big board, but it just comes down to playing with some enthusiasm,” Weber said Saturday.

The coach tried to forget all of that after Saturday afternoon’s game with Minnesota, a 67-58 win fueled by Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock’s combined 38 points.


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Weber stayed positive, referencing the Illini’s schedule as reason to believe his players could be battle-tested enough to be successful in the Big Ten Tournament.

If the team expects to put together any sort of postseason run, Illinois must find consistency on Thursday, the first day of the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.

“Being consistent, coming back, having a good game and then taking another step (is key),” Weber said.

“It’s been a long time. I don’t know if we won two in a row, maybe not this year, I don’t know. It’s been a while, so we got to have some consistency, obviously, if we’re going to make a run.”

According to Weber, at one point the Illini (13-18 overall, 5-13 Big Ten) had played more games against ranked opponents than nearly everybody else in the nation. That bodes well, save for one tiny detail.

“The problem is we didn’t beat any of them,” Weber said. “If we’re going to do anything next week, we got to get one.”

There was a 13-point November loss to Duke, now the fifth-ranked team in the country, and failed ventures against four top-20 teams within the Big Ten. Wisconsin, Indiana, Purdue and Michigan State all fared well against Illinois, accounting for a total of eight Illini losses.

Illinois dropped its last game against Michigan State on Thursday 59-51, following a decisive win over Iowa a week before. But Weber pointed to the team’s effort in the loss as a bright spot moving forward.

“It’s somewhat positive that we could go to Iowa and win,” he said.

“We gutted one out Thursday night, couldn’t find a way to get it, but at least came back today with some energy.”

The Illini will practice on Monday, “prepare” on Tuesday and hold a “glorified walkthrough” on Wednesday before departing for Indianapolis for their first-round matchup against the tournament’s No. 7 seed, the Penn State Nittany Lions.

At this point, Weber knows the Illini’s postseason, whether it be in the NCAA or the NIT tournament, hinges entirely on the team’s performance against its Big Ten foes.

“We have no other chance,” Weber said.

“We can’t get into the NIT unless we go on a huge run, and, you know, (we) would have to get to the championship game to even be considered by the NIT, and I don’t know if that would happen.

“This is it, we better be focused, and if you’re a senior you might not get a chance to play again, you’re not going to play college basketball again. You’re career comes to an end. We talked a lot yesterday about attitude, focus, little things, doing your job, and that’s all stuff we got to take care of next week.”