The Illinois basketball team has been enigmatic this season. Victories over highly-rated foes have been countered by embarrassing losses to weak teams. The Illini Nation is restless at a time when the fragile egos of Illini players need their help most, Saturday at home against Iowa.
"You want to have the home support," senior forward Mike Davis reminds. "When this place gets loud, it's intimidating. We've played well at home this year. We've got to protect home court. We need to come out tomorrow, play with energy and enthusiasm and win this game."
Illini fans want to support the team, but they want their effort to be rewarded with quality play. Unfortunately, Illini players want so badly to make the NCAA Tournament and please their fans, they have become tighter than drums and play worse rather than better.
Contrast that with Iowa. The Hawkeyes under first year coach Fran McCaffery have no such lofty goals. They simply want to play their best in preparation for better seasons to come. As Illinois coach Bruce Weber reminds, they have nothing to lose.
"We can't play uptight. If we do, we're gonna be sorry. They're just coming to play. They're getting after it and going. We've got to do the same thing. It's coming and playing your butts off, like you know you can."
The Hawkeyes are only 3-12 in the Big 10, but Weber reminds they have played better as the season has gone along. Much better than when the Illini beat them in Iowa City to begin conference action.
"Fran has done a nice job with his team. He's mixed in some new guys with a few returnees. They've kept good energy, they've competed. They had a nice little run where they played very well against Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin. Now they've hit a tough stretch. Everyone goes through these where you play a lot of teams in a stretch."
Freshman Mehsahn Basabe has come into his own. He is averaging 13 points and 7.5 boards a game. His scoring average is slightly behind team leader Matt Gatens, and his rebounding leads the team. Junior college point guard transfer Bryce Cartwright has picked up his play lately and comes in with an 11.3 scoring average while easily leading the team in assists.
"Basabe is a little older and is playing with a little more confidence," Weber states. "He's very active. I think Cartwright has played well, trying to feel his niche. You had (Cully) Payne playing point early, then he had the injury and Cartwright took it over.
"We caught him right after that, and he was still trying to get a feel. I think he has played well and has confidence. (Eric) May and Gatens are very solid shooters. You have to find them, you can't let them get going. That's his style that he would like to play. Get the ball and run, and then in the half court get your shooters quality shots."
Senior Mike Tisdale is impressed with the Hawkeyes.
"They're an improved team. They've done some things we couldn't do. They won at Indiana, they beat Michigan State pretty good. They're playing with more confidence now. They're definitely a good team, and we have to go in with the mindset we have to play our best game to win."
Tisdale admits there have been plenty of pressures and distractions with which to deal this season. Everywhere the players go, they are bombarded with questions and criticisms. He knows what the players must do to win.
"There's been a lot. Everybody has their own opinions. We've just got to focus on ourselves and our team. The only people who are important to us right now are the people in the locker room. We've got to keep everything else out of our minds. Our focus is Iowa and Iowa only."
Senior Bill Cole says relaxation is simply a matter of trusting what you've learned throughout your basketball career and then allowing that talent to emerge.
"We've been playing this game our whole lives. We just need to do the things we know how to do, and hopefully things will fall into place."
Senior point guard Demetri McCamey is beginning to find his stroke and confidence again. The seniors have not been consistent this year, but help from the younger players hasn't emerged as hoped either according to Weber.
"D.J. (Richardson) is the one. I think we kept going with him because he would defend. He had a couple defensive games that weren't what they should be. I think he's mentally feeling sorry for himself and can't make shots.
"So we said, 'Let's give somebody else a shot and see what they'll do. Maybe if anything it will spur a little bit of adrenalin to a couple of guys that haven't been getting much done.'"
Freshman Crandall Head was given his first career start at Ohio State, but he lacks experience and has a couple major flaws he must work to overcome. Freshmen Jereme Richmond and Meyers Leonard are beginning to figure things out, but it has taken them longer than they or Weber hoped.
"Jereme's had some good moments. I think his is a consistency thing. How to play out on the perimeter. With all freshmen, learning how to play. You get some rare guys like (Jared) Sullinger. He stayed in his position; he didn't change from high school to college.
"Jereme had a change of position. A lot of things are new to him. Maybe it's taken him a little longer than you hoped, but I think he shows signs that he could be pretty good. I keep telling him I just want him to let loose and play, be aggressive and take it to people. That's the only thing that I would like down the stretch.
"It's been a little slower, a little harder for Meyers. Just all the things that have been thrown at him, from hedging ball screens to box outs to screening. I thought the last couple weeks he's really starting to listen, be more coachable in practice and do what we ask. And he understands he needs to do that to make progress.
"Meyers has got to get bigger and stronger. He's not a weakling by any stretch. But he's got to not only get stronger but use his strength. Sullinger is a great example; he uses his body. That's what Meyers has to do.
"He has to have stronger legs, a stronger base. It's been Tiz (Tisdale's) downfall. He's got very long legs, and they're not as strong as you hoped they'd be. He gets knocked off balance so much. Balance is so important, especially if you're playing in the post.
"It would have been nice to have a little quicker progress with both those guys. I still think they have a chance to be very good players. The time they've played has been beneficial for them."
In the meantime, Iowa awaits. The Illini are in a must-win situation, and Weber hopes the Illini players will rise to the occasion. And he hopes Illini fans will become a true sixth man and refuse to let their team lose.
"I think everyone knows what's at hand. One, you've got to win your home games. If you could find a way to go to Purdue and win, it would give you a big road win against a top team. Now you would be in pretty good shape. You'd be in the top five in the league if you're 10-8.
"I think the crowd will be very important. The energy from the arena will be important for our guys on both the last two home games."