When the Fighting Illini seniors look back on their four years of college basketball, some of their fondest memories will be of their hoarse-throated coach Bruce Weber and his temper.
“The way he yells and throws things when he gets angry, I’m gonna miss that for sure,” center Mike Tisdale said, sounding as if he really meant it.
It’s been that kind of season for the Illini, who have slipped from the Top 25 to the NCAA tournament bubble. But there’s more at stake in the last game on the regular season schedule than one last fond memory.
“It’d be an understatement to say it’s a big day for us Saturday,” the coach said.
The Illini (18-12, 8-9) plays Indiana (12-17, 3-13) on Saturday, desperately trying to build a tournament-worthy resume after a season punctuated by second-half collapses and what at the time seemed like baffling losses – to Illinois-Chicago, Northwestern, Penn State and the bottom-feeding Hoosiers.
Adding them up, the losses now appear to make sense for a team that looked so good on paper. Besides Tisdale, Illinois came into the season with three seniors boasting a wealth of starting experience: point guard Demetri McCamey and fowards Mike Davis and Bill Cole.
Illinois either led at the half or was tied in nine of the games it went on to lose. Weber has talked regularly about a team he believes has sometimes been not as tough as it needed to be, and somewhere along the way stopped believing it was capable of taking Texas to overtime or beating North Carolina. The Illini did both early in the season.
“It got to a point we lost confidence as individuals, and then it was trying to find out how to get each guy out of their pity party,” Weber said Thursday.
But the team has at least some of that confidence back, he said, pointing to a solid win over Iowa last weekend and a close road loss to No. 6 Purdue on Tuesday.
The start time Saturday – 11 a.m. Central – has already drawn complaints from Indiana coach Tom Crean. His team will only have about 36 hours between the end of its game Thursday night against Wisconsin and the tip-off Saturday.
Weber said that, no matter, he fully expects the Hoosiers to start fast, something his team hasn’t always been able to do.
“We have to be ready to come out and match their energy,” he said.
Energy defined the Hoosiers’ 52-49 win over the Illini in Bloomington, Ind., back on Jan. 27.
A packed house roared through the final minutes as it became more and more clear that Indiana would hold off their rivals, and afterward Crean celebrated with screaming, chanting fans in the lobby of the Assembly Hall.
The Hoosiers were down three starters for that game – guards Maurice Creek and Verdell Jones and center Guy-Marc Michel. Jones, who is from Champaign, is back and will should give the Hoosiers a lift.
“Now you add Verdell back into the mix, they have three guys that are very good at scoring,” Weber said, referring to Jones, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls, who are all averaging in double figures.
“No matter what their record, (Crean) seems to get them to play very hard.”
That’s something Weber himself has said he hasn’t always been able to get his Illini to do this season.
One of the first players to come out of the midseason crisis of confidence, he said, was Davis.
The quiet, good-natured Davis has appeared more vocal and more serious over the past four or five weeks, occasionally taking on a role as a noisy floor leader and, in one postgame news conference, calling out teammates for their lack of effort.
All those broken clipboards and thrown cell phones, Davis said Thursday, have started to have the desired effect.
“We get the message,” he said. “The main thing is to get the message.”
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