Illinois concludes its regular season at Wisconsin Sunday. It is not an enviable assignment; the Badgers won in Champaign and are normally tough to beat in the Kohl Center. And it is unknown whether the Illini can muster the combination of intensity, focus and relaxed muscles needed to play their best against a tough opponent.
Illini coach Bruce Weber recognizes the challenge ahead.
"We've got to help keep the kids' spirit up. Wisconsin is obviously not a very good venue to play at, although they have lost some home games this year. We've got to get the spirit and emotion back."
One wonders whether any coach can rekindle confidence after a 10-12 losing slide. Basketball players are human beings with feelings, and losing so many games damages fragile egos. Add in pressures brought by Illini Nation demanding wins or coaching changes, and the players tighten up like they did Thursday against Michigan.
"We didn't have the emotion you would hope for. I know the kids care, so maybe it's the stress of the situation. They want to be successful, but when your spirit has been shaken so many times with so many close games, it's a difficult situation. Maybe it's taken a toll on them this last month, I don't know."
Meanwhile, the Badgers are standing at 22-8 on the season and 11-6 in the Big 10, guaranteeing another top four finish. In their last two games, they upset Ohio State in Columbus before returning home to upend Minnesota. There is no reason to assume they will play flat against the Illini.
Besides having a coach and system that maximizes success by minimizing mistakes, Wisconsin has enjoyed assistance from multiple players. Senior point guard Jordan Taylor is their star despite having less individual success this year than last. He has an excellent assist-turnover ratio and hits clutch shots.
But he also has a strong supporting cast. Senior Ryan Evans has blossomed both as a scoring threat and rebounder. Tall forward Jared Berggren, who burned the Illini in their first encounter with three point shots, has had good games when needed most. He scored only 5 points against the Gophers but 18 against Ohio State.
Josh Gasser and Mike Bruesewitz are consummate team players who play sound defense and grab important rebounds. They would score high on the Illini's MATTO play-hard chart and are the glue holding the team together. And Ben Brust comes off the bench with an accurate three point shot.
One difference between the Illini and UW is the timing of made shots. While the Illini are capable scorers part of the time, they seem to miss in pressurized situations. Weber says Wisconsin is the opposite.
"Their shooting numbers are not that great, but they seem to make big shots, they seem to make timely shots. They spread you out, they put your big guys in a bind. When (Berggren) makes those threes, it makes it really difficult."
The consistency of the Wisconsin program is enviable. They have kept the same starting lineup the entire season. Weber says that is a big advantage.
"When you have consistency of effort and production, that's when you win. That's when it makes it easy to coach. They've had their tough times during the year, but they are consistent enough to make enough plays to win some close games. Keep themselves in the top half of the league."
Weber grew up in Milwaukee, so he has a number of friends planning to support him in Madison.
"I know a handful of my close friends will be there. They're always there, they were there (for the Michigan game). We have a great relationship; it's a great group. A lot of them go back to the third or fourth grade. That's the best part of sports. You create friendships that really last a lifetime. That's what I have with these guys."
Whether the friends can help him pull off the upset remains to be seen. The odds are strongly against him, as are hopes of making a Big 10 tourney run and securing a place in the NCAA tournament. Keeping his job is also a consideration. But Weber will never give up.
"The only thing we can do is play with great emotion, play as a team, enjoy each other and keep a smile on the face. Maybe some good things will go our way and we'll make some tough shots. We have to find a way to get a couple victories here.
"We still think we can make something happen. That's what we believe in, and we're going to keep battling and fighting until it's over."