Illini face Big Ten season’s ‘final exam’ in first tournament game

After dropping its regular season finale at Penn State last Thursday, the Illinois men’s basketball team was left waiting to find out its seeding. At best, the Illini would end up a No. 2 seed. At worst, they could fall to No. 4.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber took to the road to keep his mind off t…After dropping its regular season finale at Penn State last Thursday, the Illinois men’s basketball team was left waiting to find out its seeding. At best, the Illini would end up a No. 2 seed. At worst, they could fall to No. 4.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber took to the road to keep his mind off the possibilities, traveling to Chicago and St. Louis on recruiting trips.

Finally on Saturday, Penn State’s 75-67 double-overtime loss at Iowa ended the Nittany Lions’ hopes for a No. 2 seed and ensured Illinois a top-three seed. Purdue’s 62-51 loss at the hands of conference champion Michigan State on Saturday clinched the No. 2 seed for the Illini.

“I guess it’s the best scenario that could have happened for us,” Weber said.

Sophomore forward Mike Davis paid close attention as the Big Ten Tournament bracket unfolded. He said the team was jubilant after each chip fell into place for the No. 2 seed.

“We got some help,” Davis said. “That does us a big help to play the (winner of the) 7-10 game instead of the 6-11 game.”

The Illini (23-8, 11-7 Big Ten) will play the victor of No. 7-seed Michigan and No. 10-seed Iowa on Friday at 5:30 p.m. EST at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.

Illinois split a pair of January games with Michigan, losing at Ann Arbor, Mich., 74-64 on Jan. 4. Ten days later, the Illini won the rematch, 66-51, at the Assembly Hall. Weber and company defeated Iowa 62-54 at home in their only meeting of the year with the Hawkeyes.

The Illini will not know who they play until Thursday afternoon, so they have been preparing for both teams in practice this week.

“I think it’s like preparing for a final exam, where it’s going to be on the whole semester,” Weber said. “The whole semester is the whole Big Ten season. You don’t know who you’re going to play. You have so many different styles.

“Michigan could play 1-3-1 (zone defense) or 2-3. They run a certain kind of offense. Iowa is compact man (defense), very deliberate. So you kind of have to prepare for everything.”

With a second-place finish in the Big Ten and the No. 20 RPI in the nation, the Illini look like a near-lock to make the NCAA Tournament. But how they perform in the Big Ten Tournament could affect their tournament seeding for better or worse.

In his most recent projection, ESPN “bracketologist” Joe Lunardi placed the Illini as a No. 5 seed. Winning the tournament could conceivably propel the Illini to a No. 4 seed, while losing the first game could drop them to a No. 7 seed or lower.

Weber said losing back-to-back games to close the regular season schedule – the team’s only losing streak of the year – could be the “shot of adrenaline” the Illini need to have success in the Big Ten Tournament.

“I think your mindset is the most important thing going into it,” Weber said. “That’s why I was saying the negative of the Penn State game, I hope it becomes a positive with some urgency, some hungriness going into it.”