The Illinois Fighting Illini started the season strong, but has recently lost their edge. Coach Bruce Weber knows the talent is their, all that seems to be missing is some leadership and toughness in his players.
Back in January, Illinois embarrassed Northwestern 88-63, shooting 70 percent from the field.
The win pushed the Illini to 3-0 in the Big Ten, a stretch in which a team built on outside shooting hit nearly two-thirds of its shots. Coach Bruce Weber openly wondered what would happen when the shooting dropped.
Now he knows.
The Illini (15-8, 5-5 Big Ten) have lost five of seven since that Northwestern win. Their shooting has gone from great to a below-average 41.8 percent and the team was forced to look for something else to win games – toughness and hard-edged leadership. Those are traits Weber admits his team is short on.
“For us to be a really special team, if we just had a little more toughness and a little more leadership in the mixing bowl with the talent we have, I think we’d come out with a pretty good product,” Weber told reporters Tuesday as his team prepared for a Thursday game at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6).
The game could be Illinois’ best shot at the road win it needs to have a chance at finishing above .500 in the Big Ten. Four of the Illini’s last eight games are away, including stops at No. 1 Ohio State, No. 14 Purdue and Michigan State.
Weber has talked often the past couple of seasons about his team’s inability to deal with success. But after an early exit from the NCAA Tournament two years ago and a tourney snub that a left the Illini in the NIT last season, 2010-11 was supposed to be different.
The cornerstones of the team, point guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and 7-foot-1 center Mike Tisdale, are all seniors, backed up by a crop of younger players that includes McDonald’s All-American Jereme Richmond, a freshman.
The Illini opened in the Top 25, and Weber talked about what they needed to do to be a top-15 team and to compete for a Big Ten title.
Now he’s fielding questions about possibly missing the NCAAs again – he says that’s unlikely, given the team’s RPI of 31 – and what’s gone wrong. Fans, meanwhile, are growing impatient and the media is starting to question whether Weber is the right man for the job.
Illinois’ coaching staff talked before the season began about working on toughness, about beating bad habits and complacency out of a team that’s shown its vulnerable to both.
Toughness, Weber said this week, is difficult trait to spot and recruit.
“When you’re looking for the future, you’ve got to find (a player) that maybe doesn’t have quite as much talent but he has that toughness and leadership that makes a difference,” Weber said.
He defended McCamey, Tisdale and Davis. They were all big-time players in high school and have made big plays, the kind that win games, he said. McCamey will finish as one of Illinois’ most prolific players and both Tisdale and Davis have each scored more than 1,000 points.
But Weber also said the team’s same old weaknesses remain its biggest problems.
“Maybe one of their downfalls is they’re too good of kids,” he said, “and you could use a little bit of ornery edge sometimes on the court.”
Weber talks particularly about McCamey, the team’s engine the past two seasons.
The guard considered skipping his senior season and entering the NBA draft. When he was hot early in the season, he looked like the best point guard in the country. But now, even as he was named this week as one of the 10 finalists for the Cousy Award that recognizes the top point guard in the nation, he’s struggling.
McCamey, the team’s leading scorer, has been held to 10 or fewer points four times in the past seven games, and – on a team that relies on him to create – has more than five assists in just one of those games.
“Our team as a whole over the last two years, when we have success we have a tendency to get casual,” Weber said. “And Demetri is one of those people.”
Teammates willing to talk about McCamey’s slump, like Richmond, say he’s merely hit a dry spell.
“Everybody goes through slumps,” said Richmond, who has begun assuming a leadership role of his own on the team and, in Weber’s view, may be its toughest player.
For his part, McCamey thinks the opposition is just playing good defense, focused on him.
“I think they just try to limit my touches or just double-teaming me and making my other teammates beat them,” McCamey said.
But the team’s slide and McCamey’s slump come at a bad time. There are just a handful of weeks left for McCamey, Davis and Tisdale to wrap up their four seasons at Illinois with the kind of payoff they were expected to deliver.
“I’m just hoping for their sake that they can have a good finish and do some special things,” Weber said.
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