NIT gives men’s basketball ‘new season’

It certainly was not there immediately following Selection Sunday. It may or may not have been there against Stony Brook. But it was there on Monday. In front of 10,032 fans, the still-disappointed Illinois men’s basketball team showed they have it – something to play for. And on the receiving end of the Illini’s newfound fortitude was Kent State.

Almost immediately after he began talking to the media following Illinois’ 75-58 victory Monday, junior Mike Davis rescinded earlier comments he had made regarding the National Invitation Tournament (NIT). Later, he elaborated further on what Illinois’ postseason games mean to its players.

“We’re still playing for something – a championship,” Davis said. “Like I said, only two teams get to win the championship, that’s the NIT champs and the national champs, so we need to end the season on a win.”

Point guard Demetri McCamey said it did not take long for the team’s anger at missing the NCAA Tournament to become focused toward a tangible goal – a trip to Madison Square Garden in New York City for the NIT championship.

McCamey said shortly after Illinois was given a bid to the NIT, the players received a text from head coach Bruce Weber that said ‘New season.’” Based on the competitiveness of practices since then, Weber’s players got the message.

“Coach earlier today said we had probably the best practices that we’ve had all season the past two weeks, from the Big Ten Tournament on to here,” Davis said.

Weber suggested not making the NCAA Tournament has given his players a humility that has made them more attentive.

“Friday, Saturday, we went after it,” Weber said. “It was all competitive, I just didn’t give them a choice … (Before) we tried to, to be honest, they just didn’t always react well. Now I think they’re a little more coachable, a little more humble and they know this is it.”

On Monday, it took time for Illinois to heat up, but backed by a larger-than-expected spring break crowd, the Illini played better and better down the stretch.

Illinois spent the first half trading baskets with Kent State, who shot 50 percent from the field in the half. During that time, the Illini received a lift from senior Dominique Keller, whose eight points all came in the opening period.

After exiting the break locked in a 31-31 tie, Illinois scored 44 points while limiting Kent State to 30 percent shooting from the field. McCamey, Davis and Mike Tisdale combined for 32 points in the second half, and all finished the game in double-figures. Davis also brought down 16 rebounds for his 15th double-double of the year.

“The game was really lost, in my opinion, in the first five minutes of the second half,” Golden Flashes head coach Geno Ford said.

After finding inspired play amid a disappointing season, Illinois will play No. 3-seeded Dayton on Wednesday at the Assembly Hall with a clear goal in mind.

“I told (the players) today at the shoot-around, ‘This is important,’” Weber said. “It’s important for our program. It’s important for our progress to make something special of this season. It’s important enough that 10,000 people would buy tickets to come.”