Illini Basketball Team Cracks Top 25

The Fighting Illini basketball team has been flirting with the Top 25 rankings all season. This week they finally made it, ranked 24th in the coaches poll and 25th by media. Illini coaches and players are happy with the recognition, but the loss at MSU took some of the luster off the accomplishment. The key now is finding a way to stay there.

Illinois has defeated three ranked teams so far this season, Missouri on a neutral court, Purdue on the road and Michigan at home. And yet none of those wins pushed them into the Top 25. Coach Bruce Weber expressed surprise at the turn of events.

"It's a nice reward, but it's kind of ironic that you lose a game and still get in the polls."

Typically, Weber wants his players focused on the next game and not the ranking.

"It's good for us, but now can we stay in there? We've got two home games to move up in the polls and get into a better position for the Big 10 race. The key will be whether we're in it next week or not."

The Illini have said all along they wanted to be ranked at the end of the year. To do that, Weber says they must not let the recognition go to their heads.

"A great learning tool was Minnesota last week. They had a total high against Wisconsin. A great win, only the third team to win at Madison in Bo Ryan's tenure. And then they come back and lose at home to Northwestern.

"So you can't get too high, you can't get too low. Who's gonna stay focused? Who's gonna have the maturity not to get too high or too low? We have proven we can compete with people, but there's a lot of games left."

Weber was pleased with the Illini's overall effort at Michigan State, but that game also exposed some weaknesses Illinois will need to overcome to stay in the rankings.

"We still are young, we still are fragile. When guys don't play well offensively, we have a tendency to hang our heads. We need somebody to make plays down the stretch. If we're gonna stay in that Top 25 and be an elite team, we're gonna have to find a way to not have those things happen that happened in those games (at Michigan and at Michigan State)."

Illini players were pleasantly surprised with the ranking, but to a man they they reflected the views of their head coach. Experienced senior Trent Meacham understands the ups and downs of major college basketball all too well.

"It's great. We're off to a pretty good start, but it's a long road. Every game's gonna be big. It's a huge week this week with two home games in Ohio State and Wisconsin. We can't worry about whether other people see us as a pretty good team or a bad team.

"I thought we might be ranked a few weeks ago, but we haven't. We happened to crack it after a loss. It doesn't matter to us. We've just got to continue to play and not worry about what other people are saying about us."

Sophomore center Mike Tisdale wasn't ready to celebrate since the loss Saturday reminded the team of improvements it needs to make.

"Normally, that would make us feel good. But I think we saw room to improve against Michigan State. Two wins this week would help a lot."

On a more positive note, Tisdale feels the Illini gained confidence despite the loss.

"They were a top 10 team when we played them, and we played them close even though we didn't play them like we could have. I think if everyone comes together and plays well, we can be a good team."

Senior fireman Calvin Brock treats the rankings with minimal vigor.

"I'm happy we're in the Top 25. But we still have to play the games, so whether we're ranked or not doesn't really matter to me."

Sophomore guard Demetri McCamey expressed similar feelings.

"It's good, but we're coming off a loss. I'd rather be coming off a win and not ranked than be coming off a loss and be ranked. But it feels good to be in the Top 25. We've got to keep it going and get this win Tuesday night.

"I didn't really think about the polls, but I came into the gym and everybody upstairs was happy. I was happy to hear we were 24 and 25 in the polls, but unfortunately we lost or we could have been even higher. I don't really look at the rankings. It's all about wins and losses."

McCamey sounds a warning note. The rankings put a big target squarely on Illinois' back.

"Everybody in the league is tough, and this is gonna give them some more momentum to take our spot."

Illini players know they must continue to improve to maintain their ranking and reach their season-long goals. The Michigan State loss neutralized the euphoria of the rankings and reminded them of their limitations.

"When we got behind at Michigan and Michigan State, we began to panic and fuss with each other," McCamey describes. "We didn't stay together. That cost us two losses.

"We need to stay together in clutch situations like the Purdue game. We have to be mentally and physically tough. I'd rather lose now than get to the tournament and lose. It's a real good learning experience for us."


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