Fire Up Early For Senior Day, Illini Fans!

Four Fighting Illini seniors take the Assembly Hall floor for the last time as basketball players as the Illini host Indiana 11:00 am Saturday morning. There is much at stake in this game besides the Senior Day tribute. Illini coaches and players hope their fans will arrive early and provide a needed spark to help them finish on a high note.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber says the Indiana game is important for a number of reasons.

"It's a big day, it's a big game. First for the seniors that have been a valuable part of our team and had a lot of accomplishments as individuals. They have a sense of wanting to get something done as a team, and this is gonna be their opportunity to do that. Maybe not what everyone anticipated or what they anticipated, but maybe they can still do some positive things as a team.

"It's a big game for us. I don't know if it totally guarantees us, but a good chance of keeping us in the top half of the league. Getting into the four-five (slot) and not having to play the first game in the Big 10 Tournament. And then also our situation with the NCAA, finishing on a positive note. Hopefully we can rise to the occasion."

In a departure from usual procedure, the careers of seniors Bill Cole, Mike Davis, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale will be celebrated following the contest. Weber explains why.

"I think the combination of what's at stake and the early morning, we decided to have the tribute to the seniors after the game. We need to focus on the game, and then hopefully we can have some nice excitement after the game and feel good about it."

Illinois still has a chance to make the NCAA Tournament field, but players, coaches and fans all expected much more. A couple unexpected losses early in the season created doubt which was magnified by the ruggedness of the Big 10, where all teams were capable of winning their home games.

It is a long season, especially when there is constant pressure to win. Weber explains how Illini players suffered from the constant strain.

"I went up to Bill Cole last week and asked, 'Are you that tired? Are you that physically drained?' He just had no energy at all and not giving us stuff that normally he would give us. He said, 'Coach, physically I'm all right. It's the mental drain of it.'

"It's taken a toll. I think they lost their confidence, the mental strain of it. They are kids, they do want to do well, but it takes a toll on them. Bill is a great example of that.

"It got to a point we lost confidence in individuals. And then it was how to get each guy out of their pitty-party. It's kind of been one by one. Mike Davis has been the most positive for the longest period of time, although his defense has slipped a little the last few games. We've got to get him back with that.

"But he was the first one. Demetri had a humbling situation. Some talks, looking at himself, watching film, he got going. And then when he got going, Tiz (Tisdale) finally made some shots. I think Billy too, Billy has always been there with the energy and the effort, but it would still be nice if we can get him to start making some shots, for his sake and to give us something offensively."

"We've really tried to stay positive. It's that fine line. You've got to make improvement, but at the same time you've got to keep them smiling and happy and get after it. Hopefully we can get the right combination down the stretch."

The strain has affected all the players, not just the seniors. Weber hopes his underclassmen are beginning to snap out of their funk also.

"I think Jereme (Richmond) is finally playing a part. He's done it in practice. I wish it would have come a little earlier. He's had some good numbers some games, but I think all of a sudden a light has come on: 'I've got to play hard.'

"We've got to get something from D.J. (Richardson). Brandon (Paul) just needs to be a little smarter and more consistent. If we can get that, maybe we can make a nice showing here in March.

"Other than the defense at Ohio State, the last couple weeks we've played more like I thought we could and should. Hopefully that will continue."

Indiana is a must-win game for the Illini. But the Hoosiers are dangerous despite their 3-14 Big 10 record. And Champaign product Verdell Jones, who sat out the earlier encounter in Bloomington, is healthy and hoping to play a great game in his home town. Weber knows his Illini must be prepared to battle.

"Indiana already beat us this year. It's a rival, they play their butts off. No matter what their record, he (Tom Crean) seems to get them to play very hard. We have to be ready energy-wise Saturday morning at 11:00 am to come out and match their intensity and to play a good ball game."

Christian Watford, Jordan Hulls and Jones all score in double figures for the Hoosiers. Weber remembers well the defeat at IU.

"Hulls played well right from the get-go. He's a feisty kid, he plays with great energy. He doesn't back down to anyone. They put us in a bind with a lot of ball screens. We have to do a better job with that. Watford played well, and he's a tough matchup because he goes out on the court and plays like a perimeter guy.

"Now you add Verdell back into the mix and you have three guys that are very good at scoring. They have a niche of getting to the basket, getting into the paint. And then their other guys really play off of them.

"(Victor) Oladipo, (Will) Sheehey and those guys, they play hard. Even (Tom) Pritchard, he's a tough dude. Maybe not the most talented, but he gets a lot out of what he has. That to me is gonna be the most important thing, how we can match their energy and intensity."

Weber hopes Illini Nation will stay around after the game to pay tribute to the four seniors. He knows they haven't always played consistently well, but he cares about them and understands what happens when players don't meet fan expectations.

He laments how some fans fail to recognize a player's improvement over the course of his career. For despite the ups and downs, all four seniors are better now than any previous time in the last four years.

"Fans can be hard. I don't think they always appreciate the other guys, the Chester (Frazier), the Billy Cole, the guy that improves and does most of what you're supposed to do as a college player. Each year you're making strides, moving up the steps, gaining minutes.

"In this day and age, everyone wants instant stardom. The players want it, the fans want it, but that's not always the case with every kid. A lot of the best stories are the guys that make the improvement and get to that point. Even Deron (Williams) made great strides, Luther (Head) made great strides. Those are the things I think sometimes fans don't appreciate."

For their part, the seniors seem as determined to win as any time in their careers.

* Mike Tisdale:

"We really need this game. We need to protect home court, and it's Senior Day. There's not too many other things that could be more important. We're going in with the attitude we're going to win, and hopefully we make it a good one."

* Bill Cole:

"First and foremost, we need to beat Indiana. That's gonna be our mindset. We're not gonna even think about anything after Indiana. There's no doubt in our minds, if we're 100% focused on Indiana and play as hard as we can with emotion, with it being Senior Day, I think we should beat Indiana."

* Mike Davis:

"They beat us on their own floor. We want to come home and take care of business on our home floor. We have the more talented team, but they play hard. They play defense like Purdue. We've got to make it seem like we're playing 6 on 5 out there Saturday.

"You want to go out on top, finish your last game at home with a win. But also you want to win it to get in that tournament. We need this win to get another notch on our belt. We've been pretty good at home. We've only lost two games at home, two games we could have won. We want to finish our record 14-2 at home this season. That would be an accomplishment for us."

* Demetri McCamey:

"Indiana is tough. We'll really hear it from the fans if we lose again this time. We know we should have won that game, but we didn't. The revenge factor is present every time we watch that film. So I think everybody will be pumped up and ready to go.

"It's gonna be emotional, but everybody knows it's a big game, a big rivalry between us and Indiana. They beat us, so there's a revenge factor. We can't let the whole Senior Day flow into the game. When we step on the court, it's all about business so we can get this win."

Weber wants the win badly. But more than anything, he wants to acknowledge the important role the seniors have played these last four years. He's confident loyal Illini fans feel the same way.

"It's a great opportunity for them to leave a good feeling in their last game in the Assembly Hall. A game that has a lot on the line for us. It would be nice if we get a victory. But I think the people will stay. I feel good about it."

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