Illinois barely slipped past Nebraska in the Assembly Hall in early January, prevailing 59-54. The Cornhuskers celebrated the return of two starters from injury that game, and they almost produced a big upset. They now get a chance to return the favor in Lincoln Saturday.
It is more than a game for the Illini. It is now a quest, to earn enough wins to gain an NCAA tournament berth and preserve the job of their head coach Bruce Weber. He realizes his job is at stake, but his primary concern is his team.
He opened himself to criticism with his frank discussion of problems with himself and the team, but he is convinced his players are still with him despite losses in 7 of the last 8 games.
"Now all we can do is focus on Nebraska and try to find a way to get a win. I think our kids have kept a great spirit. I think they a lot of times have better resolve than the fans and coaches and adults and people around the program.
"They came back (Thursday), and we had an energetic and spirited practice. It wasn't very long...we've had a grueling stretch here with a lot of games. You have to make sure to keep them fresh. We played 25 minutes, and that was it. We played Knock-out, and a lot of them stayed and shot for a long while afterwards."
The toughest thing for a team to do is remain positive and focused on their goals despite recent turmoil. Weber says Fortune smiled on them after Thursday's practice. At least, the players were uplifted by news they heard on television.
"I think the best part of the whole thing was, we went in to eat while the Wisconsin and Michigan State game was on. They were doing who's-in-the-tournament stuff, and they had Illinois still in the tournament. Before the practice, I had told them that we were still in the tournament, that we control our own destiny.
"I think the kids felt good about it, saying that Illinois was still in the tournament. It's something that we've driven into them. We have to find a way to get some wins, but first we have to get one win. Obviously, it would help if Nebraska is the first one."
Weber's counterpart at Nebraska is Doc Sadler. He is getting pressure from his fans for winning only 3 of 13 Big 10 games. While the rest of the Big 10 saw the Cornhuskers as cannon fodder, but their fans expected their first year in the conference to be a rousing success. Funny how that works, huh? Sadler's sixth year in charge may be his last.
"Doc is a very good coach. It's a tough transition into the Big Ten, especially in a year when we have so many good teams and so many good coaches. I think he would tell you that depth in the league, if you compare the Big Ten and Big 12 conferences, especially this year, but the bottom half make it very difficult on everybody. So you have no let-ups, you have to come to play.
"He's got an older group and has had some really nice moments during the year. And some disappointing moments too. They're very solid defensively, that's Doc's MO. They post-trapped us and really helped off, just like a lot of teams have done throughout the year."
Statistics and overall records are often revealing when evaluating upcoming games. But not this time. Forget Nebraska's advantages. Forget the concerns about Illini stars Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul. Forget about Weber's plight. Throw all that out the window.
What Illinois needs now is a date with Destiny. The St. Louis Cardinal baseball team needed multiple miracles to reach the playoffs, yet they rose up when all hope was lost and won the World Series. So it is not impossible a similar miracle can happen for the Illini.
No, it is not expected, even by the most die-hard Illini fans. All realize the chances are extremely slim the Illini can reverse their fortunes, play consistently well and get on a roll prior to the playoffs.
But Weber has the heart of a lion; he will never give up. If his team follows his lead, it can still make something positive happen. Most Illini fans are resigned to the likelihood Weber is in his last season as an Illini. But true fans never give up on their team, just like the best coaches and players.
Weber is still fighting to make his team's dreams come true. Maybe like Don Quixote, he is tilting windmills and living in a dream world. In the Broadway musical "Man Of La Mancha," Quixote sings about his "Impossible Dream." The lyrics have been an inspiration to millions over the years; perhaps Weber carries them with him at all times. After all, they fit his present situation perfectly.
"It is the mission of each true knight... His duty... nay, his privilege! To dream the impossible dream, To fight the unbeatable foe, To bear with unbearable sorrow To run where the brave dare not go; To right the unrightable wrong.
"To love, pure and chaste, from afar, To try, when your arms are too weary, To reach the unreachable star!
"This is my Quest to follow that star, No matter how hopeless, no matter how far, To fight for the right Without question or pause, To be willing to march into hell For a heavenly cause!
"And I know, if I'll only be true To this glorious Quest, That my heart will lie peaceful and calm When I'm laid to my rest.
"And the world will be better for this, That one man, scorned and covered with scars, Still strove, with his last ounce of courage, To reach the unreachable stars!"
If Weber and his players can take those words to heart, there may still be some hope for the season. Whether fans want Weber fired or retained, all Illini fans want their team to be successful. So join them in this quest, this hoped for date with Destiny. Hope springs eternal; anything is possible if one dreams the Impossible Dream.