Illini Coach: Surely We’ll Make NCAAs
Heading into the Big Ten tournament, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has questions.
Will Jereme Richmond's banged-up shoulder hold up? Can he count on slumping guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul for at least tough defense in Friday's game against Michigan? Will Demetri McCamey's solid form of the past few weeks last?
But Weber figures, surely, there's at least one thing he doesn't have to question -- what happens to Illinois (19-12, 9-9 Big Ten) after the conference tournament is done.
If Illinois isn't in the NCAA tournament, "I would be dumbfounded, to be honest," Weber said, counting off the tough non-conference opponents the Illini faced this season -- Texas, Maryland, North Carolina and Gonzaga among them. Illinois beat the last three and took Texas to overtime.
Then again, the Illini were stunned a year ago when they were left out of the NCAA tournament for the second time in three seasons. Their record then (19-14, 10-8) was even a little better as far as conference play goes.
This season, Weber said, the Illini went through a tougher schedule with last year's snub in mind.
If games against Texas, North Carolina and the rest don't get the Illini into an expanded tourney that now includes 68 teams, "I will totally change my mindset of scheduling philosophy, I promise that," he said.
Illinois has rebounded in recent weeks from a midseason slump that saw them slide out of the Top 25 and into the middle of the Big Ten pack. McCamey's game in particular fell off and losses to Indiana, Penn State and Northwestern piled up like failing grades on the Illini report card.
Since then, the Illini sandwiched wins over the Hoosiers and Iowa around a close road loss to Purdue.
The team that won those games, Weber said, looked a lot more like the one that handled North Carolina than the one that couldn't buy a key basket when it needed one at Indiana.
"We had the puzzle pretty well put together early; it got messed up," Weber said. "Now we're putting those pieces back into the puzzle."
The biggest piece of that puzzle is McCamey..
The senior guard, even with his midseason slump, is Illinois' leading scorer with 15 points a game. And no one on the roster can run the offense the way McCamey can -- his 6.1 assists a game are second in the conference, behind the Wolverines' Darius Morris.
McCamey traces his problems -- and his team's -- to a tentative streak he believes is behind them.
"I think I've just got to be aggressive," he said, adding that the Illini were often slow to get into transition during their slump. "We are a real dangerous team when we get out in transition."
Weber said his other questions still need to be answered.
Richmond, the first player off the bench for Illinois, is playing with pain in his injured shoulder but will have to be a factor for the Illini if they're going to get past Michigan (19-12, 9-9).
Paul and Richmond, Weber said, could be important, too. Paul is one of Illinois' only options for spelling McCamey -- and when he's on, the sophomore guard can be a dangerous shooter. Richardson, meanwhile, will likely have a lot of the defensive responsibility for Morris.
"Morris is kind of the head of the group," Weber said. "A Steve Nash-like player that wheels and deals and sets up everyone else.