By Dave Wischnowsky–
So, maybe this Bruce Weber guy can coach a little, after all.
And perhaps Illini basketball isn’t dead just yet.
On Thursday night in Minneapolis, Illinois’ much-criticized coach made a bold move and shook up his lineup like a maraca, with seniors Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale falling out and Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard sliding in. By rattling his cagers, Weber’s move appeared savvy as the fight returned to the Illini with McCamey playing his most determined game in weeks and the team finishing strong for a crucial 71-62 road win over Minnesota.
Afterward, you could almost hear the life whooshing back into the season.
Or maybe that was just my own exhale.
Either way, the key now is to keep the season’s heart pumping strong on Sunday with a win at home vs. No. 14 Purdue.
“We were in a foxhole and in a war,” Weber said about Thursday’s victory at Minnesota’s Williams Arena. “Demetri played so hard that he cramped, and we had a season high on the play-hard chart. We grinded it out. It scares me because we have
Purdue coming up and we don’t always handle success well.”
That, the Illini most certainly have not.
Four times this season when things appeared to be on the uptick for Weber’s club, they went and tore it all down in maddening losses to UIC, Penn State, Indiana and Northwestern.
But, as frustrating as some of the Illinois setbacks have been this season, the Illini still do not have a truly bad loss – in terms of margin of defeat – on their resume.
(Think No. 9 UConn’s 89-72 pummeling by St. John’s on Thursday night.)
Illinois’ eight losses this season have been by a combined 41 points, including only two by double figures (75-64 vs. Missouri and 76-66 at Wisconsin). That works out to an differential of just 5.1 points per defeat – an average margin that’s equivalent to making one more three-pointer each game while denying the opponent one of theirs.
In other words, narrow.
On Thursday night, a friend of mine from out of town sent me a text after the Illini victory that read, “Might have to get a new phone. This one says Illinois won a close game.”
“They should have made it closer,” I replied, my tongue firmly planted in cheek. “They’re still winless in games decided by 6 points or less.”
Keeping the smart-aleck theme alive, my friend shot back: “Still, nice win. Keeping themselves right on track for an embarrassing first-round loss.”
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Let’s worry about that in March.
Thursday night’s win was a big step toward getting there.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.