Illinois coach Bruce Weber, taking heat for three consecutive losses, must now face his good friend Tom Izzo and the high-flying Michigan State Spartans Tuesday night. Every Big 10 game is a battle, but this one will be especially difficult.
"It's a big game. Every game is a big game. When you come off some losses, it makes it even bigger. To me, it's a character game. Three other teams have been in similar situations in the league and have responded. Wisconsin, Indiana, and Minnesota all losing.
How you respond to it is so important. All three of those teams have responded by getting some wins and getting on the positive side. We have to see what we're about, see if we can meet the challenge."
The Spartans are led by do-everything Draymond Green (6'-7", 230). The senior leads the team in every category except assists, and he's a close second there. He averages 15.3 points and 10.4 rebounds, and he shoots 39% from the three point line. And as Weber reminds, he is also the team's undisputed leader.
"It's not gonna be easy. Michigan State is a good quality team. They have one of the best players and one of my favorite players in Draymond Green. I'm not sure exactly what he is, he's just a player. He's a point guard, he's a forward, he's a center, he's everything. He's a tough matchup.
"The best characteristics about him are his will to win and his leadership. And he's a coach on the floor. Usually the point guard is calling the plays, but he's telling people where to go.
"So you've got that tough matchup. He's gonna get good points. You can't let him have a triple-double. When he gets involved scoring and rebounding and assists, that's when they're so effective. We can't let an (Keith) Appling, (Brandon) Wood or (Derrick) Nix go off and have a huge game. It really puts you in a bind."
Brandon Paul will likely be the top choice to guard Green, but Weber is noncommittal as he must have committee defense on the Spartan star.
"It's tough. You're going to have to give up something, and hopefully we can take advantage a little bit on the other end. I think we know who will be the first guy to guard Draymond, it's the second guy who will be the big key. And then keeping him off the boards too."
Appling (6'-1", 190) is the only other double digit scorer. The sophomore averages 12.3 points for all games but has picked it up by two points an outing in Big 10 play. He also has 83 assists to lead the Spartans. Senior transfer Wood (6'-2", 190) adds more than 9 points a game and is a solid three point shooter.
Freshman Brandon Dawson (6'-6", 220) is listed as a guard but is better near the basket. Weber explains how Green helps Dawson average over 8 points a game.
"Dawson has had a few pretty good games, and he's pretty athletic. He's really a four now trying to play a three. But Draymond is so good, they can kind of hide him. He's a guy you're going to have to keep off the boards also. They will post him up, post Draymond up and give you a lot of different looks."
Sophomore Adreian Payne (6'-10, 240) starts at center, but the junior Nix (6'-9", 270) has a better scoring average as his replacement. They combine for more than 8 boards each outing. Freshman Travis Trice (6'-0", 170) and senior Austin Thornton (6'-5", 205) provide firepower off the bench. They lead the team in three point shooting, each hitting around 43% of their attempts.
With the Illini committing too may careless turnovers and hitting only 3 of 21 arc shots in their road loss at Minnesota, Weber has concerns against MSU.
"The biggest difference between their record and ours is we have not shot our threes well, and we've turned the ball over. They have improved both since the start of the Big Ten season."
He's also working feverishly to develop Brandon Paul as a leader. The Illini have searched fruitlessly up to now for a leader like Green. Weber hopes Paul is beginning to understand the role needed of him.
"I sat down with Brandon. I would love him to become a Draymond Green. Obviously, if you get a Draymond Green, it's rare. When you get a Deron Williams or Dee Brown, you're fortunate to have guys like that. It's special. If we could have somebody take some steps closer to that, obviously it would help us.
"I think Brandon has really tried the last month to become a leader. He's really tried. Is he in Draymond Green's class? No. I think you've got to be so comfortable with yourself to be able to call others out.
"And you've got to play. If you're gonna talk the talk, you have to walk the walk. You've got to do what you're talking about. If Brandon could get some more consistency, I think he has the ability to do that."
It will be a fierce battle against two blue collar teams, but there is a true friendship between Weber and MSU coach Tom Izzo. Weber longs for bygone days when he and Izzo were assistant coaches and winning did not take on such monumental proportions.
"It goes back to when we both started. I don't think it was so competitive at that time, life and death every game. You could enjoy each other, talk to each other without fear that every day you're gonna lose your job. It was different. Coach (Gene) Keady got along with Coach (Jud) Heathcote, there was camaraderie and everyone enjoyed each other.
"I think our relationship started because Coach Jud would do something, and it would drive him nuts. He would call me, and I would tell him something that Gene would do to top that. And we told the truth to each other. Everyone has problems, everyone has difficulties. You need somebody to call and talk to and say, 'Man, you don't know what I just went through.'
He called me up about a month ago and said, 'I've got to tell you this because I don't know who else to tell. And I know you won't tell anyone else.' Sometimes you need somebody to talk to about things. We trust each other, we enjoy each other. It's a unique relationship."
Weber is proud of his friend's achievement of winning his 400th game in East Lansing.
"What he did last week to get to 400, it's impressive. In this day and age, to stay at a place long enough to get 400... Coach (Lou) Henson, Coach Keady, Coach (Bobby) Knight, it's pretty amazing. I'm not sure it will ever happen again, to be honest. Maybe, but I'd be surprised."
Weber is feeling heat for his inability to return the Illini to the Final Four. Many Illini fans have lost patience with their coach, and his sensitivity to their needs is obvious. But he feels it important to stick to his principles.
"It's hard to understand sometimes, but life's not always fair. A lot of times in life, you can do everything right and lose. And you've got guys that are jerks, and they get the good part of it. You've just got to believe in yourself and believe in the way you do things. Do it the right way, and hope in the long run Life will treat you well. That's all you can do."
He's hoping his latest effort to support Coaches vs. Cancer will add a unique quality to the game and provide extra incentive for Illini players. Besides Weber and staff wearing suits and tennis shoes, Operation Blue-Out will be in effect. Fans are asked to wear blue; Illini players will participate also.
"We are going to wear our blue road uniforms. It's something a little different. When I first started coaching here as an opponent, there was a lot of blue instead of orange (in the stands). When I first came here as coach, it was mostly blue.
"We started 'Paint The Hall Orange,' and that was a great success. Then we had the Pink-Out. We did Stripe The Stadium this year, and I thought that was cool. And now you've got something different. The T-shirts are on sale at Game Day. The profit goes to Coaches vs. Cancer.
"We had to get special permission from the Big Ten to wear our blue road uniforms, and from Tom Izzo. Ironically, they had lost to Northwestern a couple weeks ago wearing white because they did a Gray-Out or something. I told Tom he didn't have to do it after that, but he said, 'We lost in green and we lost in white, so it doesn't matter.'"
The Big 10 is a highly competitive conference; everyone appears fairly evenly matched. Coach Weber would like to go easy on his players, but there is too much at stake to let up just as the meat of the conference schedule begins.
"Michigan State doesn't care that we lost, nobody cares. So I've got to be hard on them in practice. It's a loss, and you've got to come back and play. We've got to have toughness if we're going to survive in this league down the stretch."
The game is close to a sellout. Weber hopes fan support will get the Illini over the hump Tuesday.
"We could use some energy, there's no doubt about it. We could use some good things happening. We need a boost of energy. Last year when we played them here, we made shots. We got off to a great start, and the crowd was definitely involved. That type of thing would definitely help us."