- Jon Greenberg, Columnist, ESPNChicago.com
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The Illinois Fighting Illini might want to shorten that nickname right around now -- or start living up to that first part.
Bruce Weber's team has lost five of six going into the Big Ten tournament, and the Illini will face fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the second-round game. So there is a very good chance Illinois, the No. 5 seed in the conference tournament, will go into Selection Sunday on a four-game losing streak and with an 18-14 record.
That's barely bubble material, which is something Weber alluded to Monday.
"We put ourselves in a major bind," he said on the Big Ten coaches' conference call. "We've got to go to the tournament and do some damage to have any chance for the postseason."
Although there always seems to be an at-large team with a so-so record, the tournament selection committee generally rewards teams that finish strong. Did the Illinois nosedive neutralize benchmark wins over Vanderbilt, Clemson, Michigan State and Wisconsin? I'm betting CBS will dispatch a camera crew to Champaign to capture this team's mood as it watches the bracket unveiling. (Of course, if the Illini are still in Indianapolis on Sunday, they are a lock.)
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi has Illinois in as his final at-large team, which puts the Illini in a precarious position at the tournament's precipice.
Sometimes, this team looks like a Sweet 16 squad when Big Ten first-teamer Demetri McCamey is humming along, dishing and scoring. But lately, faced against the league's upper echelon, Illinois looks like an inconsistent NIT team unable to find the inspiration inside to be better than mediocre.
"We had a difficult week," Weber said.
He's not kidding, but hey, that's how it goes in the Big Ten and the Big 12 and all the other conferences that are bereft of directional schools.
It's one thing to run into a buzzsaw like Ohio State, but Sunday's 72-57 home loss to Wisconsin was embarrassing, even with the Badgers back at full strength. That loss capped off a rough late schedule that included two losses to the Buckeyes, one to Purdue and one to Minnesota. Since beating Wisconsin in Madison, which put Illinois in Big Ten title conversation, its only win has come against Michigan.
It's not as if the Illini have been playing the Summit League, but playing against the best is why major conference schools get first crack at prized at-large bids with 19 or 20 wins. The so-called high-major programs get a little extra rope, but it's starting to get taut like a tight orange necktie.
"You shouldn't have to ask them to have energy," Weber said, as mentioned in Scott Powers' column after the Wisconsin loss. "That's probably one of the problems, I think. To be honest, that's got to come [from] within. It's the little extra hustle plays, it's jumping after the ball, going after the long rebound."
For all the complaints Illinois fans have had about Weber in the past five years, everyone can agree he shouldn't have to coach effort in early March. Some teams and players just don't have it. These guys don't get paid like pros, but it would be nice to see some professional effort. It's not too late yet, but the door is closing.
Although the Illini, ranked No. 23 in the AP's preseason poll, haven't cracked the Top 25 in either poll since the second week of the season after the back-to-back wins over Michigan State and Wisconsin made them 9-3 in the conference, I thought Illinois was building a "lock" résumé. Now, at 10-8 in the Big Ten, they probably have to beat Wisconsin to make the tournament. There's no way around it. Ken Pomeroy, the college basketball numbers guru, has the Illini at 56th, between Murray State and Seton Hall. Jerry Palm, at collegerpi.com, doesn't have Illinois in the tournament. CBS Sports' RPI has Illinois at No. 74, just ahead of Illinois State.
These are grim numbers, and Weber certainly isn't sanguine about the Illini's chances. His hair's probably so white because of this crew that he's coloring it gray. In a last-ditch effort to manufacture pride, he let the team wear warm-up T-shirts that read "carpe diem" Sunday. Surprisingly, fun with Latin didn't work.
"I hope they, you know, come out with a sense of urgency, but we've been saying that for a couple weeks," he said about the Big Ten tournament. "This is it. We've got to go to Indianapolis and play Wisconsin and lay it on the line. Last week we tried a lot of different motivational stuff, but I guess it didn't work. I guess it comes down to what you have inside and how much they really want it."
After that brilliant run to the NCAA title game in 2005, Weber's star dimmed as out-of-state vultures such as his predecessor, Bill Self, picked away at his local recruits and even his brother, Glenbrook North coach Dave Weber, couldn't get his own player, Jon Scheyer, to play in Champaign. The Jamar Smith incident put the program in a bad light after his car wreck that seriously injured a teammate. In fact, I was shocked that accident didn't set the program back further. But with lead recruiter Jerrance Howard, hired in 2007, nabbing local kids again, this program is gaining steam. Next season, three highly touted prep players join the fold, led by ESPNChicago's Player of the Year, Waukegan star Jereme Richmond. If talented junior point guard McCamey, who averaged 14.9 points and led the conference with 6.8 assists per game, comes back for another season, this is a Big Ten contender.
But although this season's stud freshman guards might have brought talent, they couldn't replace the leadership a less-talented player such as Chester Frazier brought to last year's 24-win team. Brandon Paul (18.7 minutes a game) is scoring 8.1 points a game while shooting 33.7 percent, and the coaches' choice for Big Ten Freshman of the Year -- as announced Monday -- D.J. Richardson (30.3 minutes) is averaging 10.3 points while shooting 40.6 percent. Neither has shined during the team's late-winter doldrums They went a combined 2-for-12 in the Wisconsin game and 5-for-20 in a bad 62-60 loss to Minnesota. But if these two can play more efficiently in Indianapolis, while McCamey feeds forwards Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis, the Illini will find themselves smiling on Sunday. No one's really counting on that, though.
During Monday's conference call, which I listened to after the fact, Weber didn't even need to use his allotted time. The moderator had to practically hang up on garrulous Tom Crean, who is coaching a superfluous Indiana team. There aren't too many questions left to ask about these Illini aside from: Will they show up in Indianapolis?
"We'll see what happens Friday at 2:30 [p.m. ET]," Weber said.
It's really that simple, and it will make for appointment television for basketball fans in Champaign, Chicago and a half dozen college towns across the country. I love this time of year, but I'm willing to bet that Weber isn't as excited.
The Illini will make their last stand in hopes of making the NCAA tourney.