If Penn State makes it to town for a Tuesday evening game, it will be exuding confidence Illinois expected to display. Star senior guard Talor Battle, who has led the Nittany Lions to a 5-3 audit over the Illini in his college career, leads a group of senior roll players who expect to win. They are riding high, while the Illini are at low ebb.
Illini players are struggling to get confidence back after a series of setbacks. Illini Nation is beginning to turn on its beloved team and highly successful head coach Bruce Weber. And the coach has a bad cold to boot. He tried to find a positive at his Monday press conference.
"I don't feel very well, the team isn't shooting very well, the weather is not very well. But on a positive note, we didn't lose this weekend. The best thing we could have is a bye, especially when 13 top 25 teams lost. So maybe it was a good thing for us."
Illinois players and coaches ignore Internet message boards fortunately, but they still get plenty of criticism and advice whenever they are out in public. As the head coach, Weber is bombarded with suggestions on how to improve his team. He provides an example.
"I went recruiting this weekend, and everyone's got advice. 'You're holding them back Coach.' That's the last thing in my mind. I would like to push it. I promise you, every game on the board it says, 'Run, push the basketball.'
"I understand in the Big 10 it's more a possession game, but we still could push it and put some pressure on people. Maybe not to score the quick one, but to move the basketball and get them out of whack defensively, get an easy basket.
"You can just see, right now we've got guys that are thinking too much. They're not running hard, they're not letting loose. At the same time, we played really well against Michigan State two games ago, and Ohio State for 30 some minutes we played really good basketball. It's just we've had all this in one stretch, and it's mounted up."
Confidence among Illini players has always been a fragile thing. It is easier for them to lose it than gain it. Bad play and dreams unfulfilled create a vicious cycle of failure. They need confidence to win, but they need wins to gain confidence.
"There's no doubt confidence is a factor now. It's taken a toll on Demetri (McCamey). He wants to do well as much as anyone. I think it's ironic with Jereme (Richmond) playing well, Demetri was the one that was the best at reaching out to him and helping him. We even roomed him with him in Madison. Now Jereme is playing well and Demetri has hit some struggles.
"It's a fine line. They all want to do well. It's just figuring out how to relax and play basketball the way you are capable. That's the biggest thing.
"We've hit a bad stretch. We've got to find a way to grind out a win. Maybe that would be the thing, have some confidence. When it goes bad, it goes bad.
"You just look at the free throw shooting of opponents over the last four games. It's incredible what they've shot. 11 for 11 Indiana, Ohio State was 24 for 27, Wisconsin 34 for 41. Now I turn on the TV and there's Indiana missing free throws. It's just part of the game. Maybe a bounce, a call can go your way and make a big difference."
The Illini have logged sufficient practice time to carry out assignments in their sleep. They all know how to make plays. Somehow, they have to trust their abilities and not force things to happen according to Weber.
"Let the game come. Move the basketball, get it to the open man. I think we're all trying to make a play. And yet at Indiana we moved the basketball and got it to people, but we didn't finish layups. We had open threes.
"But when that happens, the next guy wants to make a play. Now we get nothing out of that so somebody else wants to go make a play instead of just being patient and letting things come."
In other words, mistakes of commission rather than omission.
"All our guys want to win. These guys care. It's painful. I think sometimes they're trying too hard.
"We have to do little things better. That's what wins the close games. The blockouts, setting screens, the jump into the ball, putting guys in situations, all those things. They know they have struggled with those things. Now, how do you correct it?
"It's not like we're getting blown out. We lost three games on blockouts, when it comes down to it. It's not like the games have been totally out of hand. But we've got to find a way to do the little things differently down the stretch. We need discipline to get a couple wins, maybe get some confidence and make a little bit of a run."
Illini need leadership, something that doesn't come easily to the four seniors. Last year at this time, Bill Cole and Demetri McCamey began to assert themselves, and the team began to win games. This year, Mike Davis is showing leadership while the others have fought problems in their own games.
"I think Mike Davis has done one of the best things," Weber stated. "He's worried more about other things he can do to help the team besides scoring. He's focusing on his rebounding, his energy and running the court. He's letting the scoring come.
"(Against Indiana) he missed some layups that hurt us, but he kept us in the game. His body language was great, what he said in the huddles was great. He's tried to be a very positive influence.
"Billy's been very stable. He's not really gotten much done either, but he's trying to say the right things. Billy's the quiet talker, gets right to the point. I think guys listen because he doesn't say too much. Other guys are struggling. It's tough to be a leader when you're struggling."
Illinois goes as McCamey goes, but he is one of those who has been in a slump.
"I just think he's trying to make all the big plays. I think he's put a lot of pressure on himself. He's got to find a way out of it. I can talk to him, we can show him film. But I'll be honest he's struggling in practice. Instead of just relaxing and moving the ball, he's trying to overdo it.
"He told me he wanted to help everyone else be better players like good point guards do. And that's what I want him to focus on. But it's easier said than done. If he will concentrate and focus on that, in the long run it might help him. If you worry about your teammates and are a good cheerleader, usually you play well. You've got the right mental state when you go out there."
With this backdrop, the Illini must find a way to slow Penn State. Weber is impressed with Ed DeChellis and his overachievers.
"Nothing is easy in the league, and this definitely is not easy with Penn State. You've got to give Eddie a lot of credit. Their seniors have played their roles well, they figured some things out. They're just finding a way to win games.
"If you really look at it, at Purdue and at Ohio State could easily have been the other way around and they'd be leading the conference. So they're a good team. We're gonna have to do a better job than we did last time on Battle. We can't let him get loose. If you let him get going, those tough shots are a lot easier. The hoop looks bigger.
"I've said for several weeks, (Jeff) Brooks is the most improved player in the league. He's really played well as a senior, very mobile, tough to guard, kind of a mismatch. It will be a real challenge for Mike Davis, Billy, Jereme, whoever has to guard him to keep up with him. He can go inside, he can go outside."
But the key to stopping the Nittany Lions is slowing Battle. Last year, D.J. Richardson received plaudits for studying Battle's every move and applying his knowledge to game action. Unfortunately, Richardson is in a prolonged shooting slump and is letting his offense hurt his defense according to Weber.
"There's no doubt. It's one thing I talked to him about last year. He wanted to find his niche. He really took pride in defending. He probably didn't get the acknowledgment last year for all the kids he had to guard. Right now because he's struggled shooting, he's lost that pride in being a really good defender."
Some Illini fans want to throw in the towel, dump the seniors and prepare youngsters for next year. Weber is not ready to do anything that drastic. But he and his staff have contemplated making a couple changes to see if someone can light a fire under his team. Unfortunately, there are fewer options than some people wish to believe.
"It's been talked about by our staff. I don't know if we'll do anything or not. We have different opinions on our staff. Sometimes it's a crapshoot on that."
McCamey has been working hard to blast himself out of his shooting funk.
"I've been staying in the gym until 12:30-1:00 am putting up extra shots. Everybody goes through slumps. They've been good teammates, telling me to keep shooting and be positive.
"I feel good. Off my film, I wasn't jumping enough on my jump shots or having my follow-through. So that's what I've been focusing on."
McCamey reminds that, while the Illini have endured some devastating losses, it has been different problems and different people each time. Finding more team chemistry might help.
"I think our problem is consistency with everybody. A couple games everybody plays well, and a couple games two people will play well in games we lose. We can't just focus on one individual. Everyone has to play collectively well for us to win."
The Illini need a boistrous home crowd to get them over the hump with Penn State. If Weber had a choice, he would see the Assembly Hall rocking like its counterpart in Indiana the other night. The crowd played no small part in the Hoosiers's upset win.
"You hope when you come home you have the crowd. That's one thing I mentioned after Indiana. One of the most impressive things I've seen in all my days. All the struggles they've had, and the crowd they had, and the noise and energy was unbelievable. That place was loud. They were into the game from the beginning to the end. That was pretty impressive. So you're hoping we come home and have some energy."
That probably won't happen due to the weather. Their first meeting at Penn State was also poorly attended, and it had an adverse affect on the Illini. Cole was asked what they can do to make up for a lack of crowd support.
"We're just gonna have to play our butts off. We've been playing pretty good at home, so hopefully we can get off to a good start. They're a good team and have some seniors on the team. We have to play harder than they do.
"Our confidence was down after the Indiana game obviously. It's up to the coaches and the upperclassmen to instill a backs-against-the-wall mentality and try to get some wins."
While it will undoubtedly be ignored by fans who have already given up, Davis continues to carry an NCAA torch for the Illini.
"I'm not down, I'm not calling it off. I truly believe we can get to the Tournament and be a 3-4 seed. Now is the time to do so. We've proved we can play with anyone in the conference. Everywhere around the country, teams are losing. We're struggling, but we'll be all right. I believe that, and all my teammates believe it too."