Illini Need Maximum Effort Against Gophers

The Fighting Illini basketball team is at a crossroads. After two straight losses, it is facing the meat of its conference schedule beginning with a trip to Minnesota Saturday night. Can it bounce back and compete for the Big 10 championship? Or will it lose more confidence with another loss? Minnesota played the Illini tough previously and will be doubly difficult at home.

Minnesota is a better team now than when Illinois played it in Champaign. Illini coach Bruce Weber leaves no doubt the Illini must play an inspired game to win after pulling out an overtime thriller at home.

"We have to have great toughness when we go to Minnesota. It must be one of our better ball games. Minnesota is very solid. They had their backs to the wall, lost some close games early. They came back with some big wins. I thought they battled Michigan State very well, but Draymond Green was very special. It is tough to win at Michigan State.

"They're like a lot of people in the league. We're all kind of caving in the middle. Anyone who can find a way to get a win with a team right with you gives you the advantage. So it's a huge game for us going up there on Saturday."

For all the complaints about the Illini using a shorter bench, Weber says that strategy has helped the Gophers.

"Ironically, Tubby (Smith) has played less people. When we played them early, they were 7-5 at the time. Sampson (Ralph III) was out. He's back now, and they have consistency. They know who their guys are. They're more consistent and executing better, that's the biggest thing."

Weber pointed to a lack of toughness down the stretch against Wisconsin as a key to the loss. He tried to do something about it in practices this week.

"We got after it pretty good in practice. We challenged our guys to play harder. We've got to get the loose balls, get the 50-50 balls. You've got to make your own breaks. I think that's the biggest thing that's got to happen."

Illini coaches placed major emphasis on being tougher at the end of games. Junior guard Brandon Paul confirms the aggressive nature of Illini practices.

"We are going to have to be a lot tougher. We've had very physical practices, which is one step closer to making us tougher and getting us to win games in the last minutes of the game. I think the last couple of games we got out-toughed. We didn't have our focus the last couple of plays of the games. I think Coach is going to have us prepared."

Fellow guard D.J. Richardson reminds how the Illini need to develop more consistency in all phases of the game.

"We need to take care better care of the ball and play with more effort. We've got to have more energy and effort on the court. And we've got to play together. Our shot selection has been a question mark for some of us, so we've got to do a better job with that. And we need to get more touches down low for Meyers (Leonard)."

Just as important Saturday, the Illini need to assert themselves early. It is easier to play with a lead than come from behind on a hostile court.

"We've got to play hard and go at them right away. We have to attack them right from the get-go. The question is, can we take care of the ball? That's been a big stat, give ourselves a chance with more possessions. I think consistency is a big thing. And then can we deal with their size and limit their number of points in the paint?"

Of course, the Illini have other issues they must resolve as soon as humanly possible. For instance, how deep should Weber go on his bench? Did Illini starters become fatigued at the end of the Wisconsin game without periodic rest during the game?

"Against Ohio State, they don't sub and we don't sub, and we found a way to win it. In the Wisconsin game, they only played eight. I don't know if it's fatigue or if they had the greater will and determination to win. Maybe it's just the mental toughness you need to be successful."

One way or the other, they need to use more players. Sam Maniscalco was expected to be the senior leader who got the team into its offense and kept everyone focused on the task at hand. His continued ankle problems have kept him on the bench getting rusty, but Leonard informs the transfer may be ready to contribute again.

"Sam has leadership ability and has been through it. Sam got his mojo back (Wednesday), Coach called it. He's starting to hit some shots again and get his nose dirty. I think Sam's back. I have a good feeling he's gonna be ready."

Weber is encouraged by Maniscalco's progress but knows he must be careful not to overuse him.

"I thought Sam had two of his better practices, really of the year. He seemed like he had a little more timing and rhythm back. He's getting his confidence back. He's gone pretty hard, so we'll have to watch him."

Leonard needs more rest as well. Freshman Nnanna Egwu has been coming along and needs to spell the starter in both halves.

"There's no doubt we've got to get Nnanna in more, use his energy. He's got to somehow do it without fouling. The other day he had two fouls in less than 2 minutes in the first half. But we've got to use his energy."

Weber also needs more offensive firepower. Freshman Myke Henry is the most natural scorer on the team. Injuries set him back, and he still hasn't learned to play defense consistently. Weber hopes he can provide a spark, giving him more points than he gives up.

"We've got to find a way to get Myke Henry in there. He makes shots. He's limited in some other things, but he can make some shots."

Weber needs wins; his job is on the line. His hesitation to play Henry up to now is understandable.

"You've got to practice well. That's the biggest thing. But sometimes as a coach, you've got to fight through your cautiousness, that you're not sure you can get the job done. He doesn't always get it done in practice.

"But the one thing he can do is put it in the hoop. He seems to play without nervousness; he just goes and plays. Maybe we need a little of that, maybe he can provide a spark. Hit some shots, make some threes. We've just got to get him in early, I think that's the biggest thing.

"Maybe put him in at the four a little bit. We've had success with Joe (Bertrand) at the four, and maybe Myke can also.

"We experimented with that early, but he came to us and said it was too much. He was having trouble learning both spots. So we backed off. Maybe we should just give him a little shot, and he gives us a burst of energy which can make a difference in the game."

Richardson's wrist injury limited Illini firepower in recent games. Getting his confidence back is as important as feeling healthy.

"It's getting better every day. I've just got to keep getting in the gym every day, putting shots up and getting my confidence back. Try to help the team any way I can."

Injuries are normal this time of year, and the Illini have certainly not been immune. Most have been of a minor nature, but any favoritism toward bumps and bruises can have an adverse effect on hustle plays.

For instance, Leonard tweaked an ankle stepping off a weight lifting mat prior to the Wisconsin game. He played major minutes and got a double-double, but his defense and hustle were adversely affected. He wasn't the only one struggling in the Badger game according to Weber.

"There's a lot of guys buggered up right now. I think that's true around the country. After the Wisconsin game, there were more ice bags in the locker room than I could imagine. That's the mental toughness thing."

Bertrand understands the difficulty facing the Illini in Minneapolis.

"It was a real tough game the first time. They're a real good team, and they really get after it. So we're going to have to match their intensity."

Paul offers similar sentiments.

"I hope we play better than the last time. Obviously they're a good team. They're a well-respected team, and they're well coached. We've got to come out with the mindset to compete all 40 minutes."

Illini backs are against the wall, but Leonard remains optimistic.

"It's gonna be a tough game. They've been playing fairly well. They got that big win with Indiana. But I think if we execute, play hard and play as a team, we'll be all right."

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