Illini, Michigan Square Off In Big 10 Tourney

The Big 10 Tournament begins Thursday, but the Fighting Illini have a first round bye before playing Michigan Friday afternoon. It will be a tough matchup between two teams holding identical records. Illinois figures to be in the NCAA Tournament, but the Wolverines may need a win to make it. They have been on a roll lately and will be fired up.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber feels his team may be peaking at the right time as it faces Michigan in the Big 10 Tournament.

"It's a big week. It's a chance to make something of the season going to Indianapolis. I think the last couple weeks we're playing better basketball. Saturday we played very well. I thought at Purdue we played good basketball. Even Ohio State, you see what they've done since our game. They've played at such a high level, it makes you feel like it wasn't as bad as it seems."

The Illini defeated the Wolverines in Champaign recently, but UM had a chance to tie at the end. Weber respects the job John Beilein has done.

"We've got a feisty opponent in Michigan. Coach Beilein has done a nice job with some young guys. (Darius) Morris is the head of the group. He gets in there, a Steve Nash-like player that wheels and deals, sets up everybody else. He's playing with a lot of confidence."

Illini senior guard Demetri McCamey may not be assigned to guard Morris, but he learned from the first meeting stopping the sophomore point guard is key to victory.

"Yeah, we've got to contain Morris. We got him out of the paint and frustrated him. If we can do that again, we'll have success. But we learned we can't cheat on the wings or they're gonna go backdoor and get some easy layups. Hardaway (Tim, Jr.) is a pretty good player as well, so we'll have to focus a little more on him this time."

Hardaway made the Big 10 All-Freshman Team, and Weber says that award was well deserved.

"Tim Hardaway Jr. is playing at a high level the second half of the Big 10 season. He's made many big shots for them."

Weber witnessed first hand the unique Michigan playing style three weeks ago.

"They kind of probe you. They got us on some backdoors. I think we had three or four of those that they got easy layups on. They just kind of work you; they put you on defense. Run a ball screen, get a pin-down. I wouldn't say it's a complicated system, but you have to understand how to defend. Kids have got to recognize things.

"The other part, when they play (Zack) Novak at the four, they're really playing four guards and a big guy. It puts our bigger guys in a little bit of a bind. You hope you can take advantage of it on the other end by getting the ball inside and rebounding against them.

"Those are the big things. They didn't score a whole lot of points, and I think overall we did a pretty good job. If we can take care of the backdoors, the flairs and things, and guard the three, that's one of their most important weapons. If they start making threes, they really spread you and put you in a bind.

"The good thing is we played them three weeks ago, and you have a good mindset of what we did. But they have the same advantage we have. They know what we do, and it was a close game."

Weber believes the Illini are beginning to recuperate from their midseason slump, especially the seniors. He'd still like to see sophomores D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul return to form.

"When you lose close games, one after another after another, it takes a toll on you. You hear it from everybody when you lose. They're analyzing it, you're trying to figure it out. You probably lose some confidence.

"We had the puzzle put together pretty early, then we got the puzzle mixed up. Now we're putting those pieces back into the puzzle. Slowly but surely, we're getting a clear picture of where we are. Demetri is playing well, that's a big positive for him and us. D.J. and Brandon still struggle a little bit."

Richardson has been in a prolonged shooting slump, and his ability to defend has suffered subsequently. Weber saw improvement in his defense last Saturday.

"I thought D.J.'s effort on defense was very good against Indiana. (Jordan) Hulls had no field goals. But he's a human, and he's having trouble getting the ball in the hoop. We need one to bounce around, hit the ceiling and fall in. It would help him.

"We've got to do a good job on Morris, Hardaway. That's what I've told D.J. Focus on those things. He comes to the bench, and he's a whipped puppy. He's sad, he's got the puppy eyes; he just wants to get a basket down. We've just got to keep encouraging him. And he can work hard in practice, come early and stay late. Maybe things will start falling into place."

Richardson is following Weber's directive.

"Coach said to do more than just scoring. I've been trying to do a lot of that. I've been getting in the gym extra. I came in (Monday) night from 10:00 pm to like 1:00 in the morning shooting shots. I just want to help the team out."

Weber stated after the Indiana game that Paul needs more consistency.

"Brandon was active, he was involved in three or four plays, but then he made bad decisions. He says he's trying to push the basketball. You've got to push it with smarts, and you've got to take care of the ball. He's just got to slow down and let the game come to him a little bit."

Paul feels there is a lot of pressure off his and the team's back now that the regular season is completed.

"Yeah, it's a clean slate. Everyone is zero-zero, so we want to end on a good note. We want our seniors to go out with a bang."

Since he will be guarding Morris and Hardaway part of the time, it is not surprising he would emphasize defense in his scouting report.

"I think defense is gonna be the main thing. I think that we have the ability to score on them anytime, but if we don't defend and trade baskets, it's gonna be back and forth like it was last game.

"We have to pay attention when we do scouting film. Having one game under our belts with them will help us in the second game. We know what we've got to do better and what we can't repeat."

The Illini will have a height advantage, something they hope to exploit.

"We've got to go inside where we can do some damage," senior center Mike Tisdale confirms. "The high-low was there last time; we'll see if we can get it again."

Tisdale, who Weber called "the difference-maker" in the first meeting, is not always the most confident person. But he feels good about playing in Conseco Fieldhouse.

"We've done pretty well there lately. I actually feel pretty comfortable on that court. The rest of the seniors do as well. I think we're gonna go there and hopefully make shots. I think defense will be a big key for us."

Freshman Jereme Richmond hopes to be involved in some high-low action also.

"At home we definitely went to the high-low a lot against them, especially Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale. If I can keep my intensity up on the defensive end and get some easy touches down low, I could be an added bonus for us."

Richmond is looking forward to his first tournament action.

"It's exciting. In the post season, everybody's level of play increases. So we're trying to come out every day in practice and work as hard as we can."

Like his teammates, Richmond knows it will be a battle. Illinois must play well to continue in the tournament.

"They don't quit. They have such great shooters, you can never count a team out who lives and dies by the three. So you've got to contain and pressure them the whole game. And try to keep Morris out of the lane because he's their big offensive guy right now."

McCamey confirms playing Big 10 teams multiple times is a drag for everyone. But he enjoys the challenge of playing quality teams.

"Everybody knows each other's plays. They probably call them out before you do. It's good playing against top teams in the Big 10. It's gonna be a good one Friday."

He feels good about the Illini's chances. At least, he believes his team will leave everything on the floor to get a win.

"It's a brand new season. If you lose now, you go home. Everybody's gonna give 110% to try to win a Big 10 Championship this weekend. We've just got to be consistent like we did the last couple weeks, play with energy and be smart down the stretch when it matters."

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