Illinois is preparing best it can to face the Missouri Tigers Wednesday night. But there is no doubt a few demons had to be exorcized before Illini minds could focus solely on Missouri. The loss to UIC required soul-searching and healing that only time can permit. Whether four days is enough time remains problematic at this stage.
Illini coach Bruce Weber can't hide his disappointment over the unexpected loss to the Flames.
"It was a very disappointing day Saturday. You talk about a lump of coal for Christmas, we got that and a lump of coal in your throat and a bunch of other places. Now the big question is how we respond to it.
"A week ago people were saying, 'You're a Final Four team.' Now we're about as low as you could be. We've got to find a medium in there, a consistency. And we don't have an easy task ahead of us."
Imperceptibly at first, the Illini began to lose focus after a fast start. Intense fall practices gradually evolved into something less competitive. Weber was concerned his team was losing sight of its mission and responsibilities.
"I thought we slipped a little bit in practice, the sense of urgency. I think early we had an edge. Last year's disappointment still lingered. And then I think mentally we arrived or thought we arrived after the Gonzaga and Carolina week.
"Now we've got to get back to the drawing board, back to the basics and get after it. See which team is really there. I hope it's the team of a couple weeks ago, but we have to show that on the court."
It was a somber bunch that met the media Monday. But at least the Illini have made an effort to correct their errors in practices since the UIC game.
"(Sunday) we came back and practiced. We had guys there early, and we had guys stay late. We had our Christmas party (that) night, and I had to hustle them out of the gym because we had to get over there for that. Otherwise, I'd get in trouble with my wife. I think they had a sense of urgency."
For the Illini to be successful, they need contributions from everyone. Against UIC, bigs Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis were off their feed, and the Illini lost balance. Tisdale and Davis need touches, but they also need to play with confidence and aggressiveness on both ends of the court. Reluctantly, Weber admits he may need to seek alternatives if things don't improve soon.
"I look for Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale to play better, but if they don't play well on a consistent basis you have to look to give some other guys minutes. That's something we'll have to get as it goes on."
More than anything, the Illini often settle for outside shots. There is minimal penetration by the guards and few free throw opportunities. As Weber reminds, you can't win forever without getting easy shots near the hoop.
"We're a jump-shooting team. We're one of the best jump-shooting teams in the country, from three or two. We keep saying to them, 'It's gonna catch up to you.' You've got to find other ways.
"That's part of basketball, you've got to understand that. Get to the paint, get some inside touches. You get two or three layups, and it changes the whole complexity of the game. That's where we've got to get better. Get finishes, get to the free throw line, so it's not totally dependent on the jump shot."
Weber has great respect for Missouri, a team that plays all-out for 94 feet and substitutes in waves to keep players fresh.
"Missouri is good. Mike (Anderson) has done a great job. He plays small ball, they come at you and never let you rest. That's the scary thing with our guys. We can't have possessions in games where we take off because that's when they make their runs. That's when they're so effective. It's a big challenge for us, and we'll see how we respond."
Junior Marcus Denmon (6'-3", 185) leads MU with a 16.8 point per game average. He grabs four boards a game, hits nearly 50% from the three point line and has a 2:1 assist to turnover ratio. Junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe (6'-8", 240) averages 12.3 points and 7.5 rebounds a game. He's hitting 57.5% of his shots.
Junior Laurence Bowers (6'-8", 210) comes in at 11.9 points and 5.9 boards a game. He's also over 50% with his shooting. Junior Kim English (6'-6", 200), who was a thorn in the Illini's side last year, is also scoring more than 11 points a game.
Sophomore point guard Michael Dixon Jr. (6'-1", 180) was suspended two games ago but is expected to play against the Illini. He makes the Tigers go while averaging 10.7 points a game. He is second on the team in assists to fellow point Paul Pressey, who is out of the Illini game due to injury.
At least four other Tigers share the load. Bloomington senior Justin Safford (6'-9", 230), junior Matt Pressey (6'-2", 185), freshman Ricky Kreklow (6'-6", 195) and junior Steve Moore (6'-9", 270) have all made positive contributions. Kreklow is 9 of 17 from the arc.
Weber shares more of his Tiger scouting report.
"Last year English was really cooking. He's had some kind of injury and hasn't shot as well. But everyone I've talked to, Denman and Dixon are the two energy guys that go. Denman seems to be the go-to guy at the end of the game, the guy that makes plays. Still English, after what he did last year, he's somebody you've got to be aware of.
"They're just a balanced team. They've got five guys in double figures, and they keep coming at you. They're gonna make shots. They're gonna turn you over some. You just can't let them get on big runs, either with 5-6 threes in a row or 5-6 turnovers in a row.
"It's mental toughness, it's physical toughness. They come at you all the time. It's the old Tom Davis, Nolan Richardson (style). When you want to relax, they're coming at you. They'll give you stuff sometimes because they go so wild and crazy and chaotic."
What must the Illini do to succeed against them?
"Keep an even keel. You have to make shots and have great effort. You can get some easy stuff, but that's up to us. We have to control the tempo and dictate it and not let them control it."
More than anything, the Illini need ball handlers to counter Mizzou pressure. The Illini may be one guard short Wednesday due to Brandon Paul's sprained ankle.
"He was on crutches Saturday, he was in a boot Sunday," Weber reports. "He was walking a little bit Monday. You've got to get him in practice Tuesday or he can't (play Wednesday). He sprained it pretty bad. It was an unusual play. A guy grabbed his jersey and threw him down, and he landed on somebody's foot.
"That's the problem against them (Missouri) because you need ball handlers. It will probably mean that Crandall (Head) has a chance to get some minutes. It puts a little more pressure on Demetri (McCamey) and D.J. (Richardson) and Jereme (Richmond), those guys that bring the ball up against them. If you can have him for some minutes, it sure helps."
Ready or not, Missouri looms Wednesday. Weber and his team must have short memories and prepare to play like champions.
"Are we happy? No. But we've got to move on and play the next game. You hope they come to practice with a better sense of urgency and intensity. And we've got to match Missouri's effort. It's a big challenge.
"The lump of coal feels heavy, there's no doubt. I'm sure we'll be great again in people's minds, but my biggest thing is I'd like an effort. We have to have a great effort and compete on Wednesday night."
The Scottrade Center will be hopping as usual for this annual showdown, with half the crowd wearing orange and half black. Perhaps the uniqueness of the rivalry and the intensity of the setting will recharge Illini batteries.
"I'm looking for effort, competitiveness, drive, enthusiasm and getting after it. If we do those things, we'll be fine. It's a special game, and I hope we can play at a high level."