Illini Mantrum: Confidence, Toughness

The Fighting Illini basketball team is doing some soul searching as it lick wounds from its second straight road collapse. Shooting was abysmal and defense was sporadic at best. Illini coach Bruce Weber says the Illini need to rekindle their confidence and become tougher mentally and physically to win on the road in the Big 10.

All teams have shooting woes at times. It can get frustrating to see one shot after another bounce off the rim with nothing to show for the effort. Teams that win do not lose confidence but look for other ways to compensate and pull out victories. Illinois coach Bruce Weber has been preaching toughness all year long.

"Jay Bilas did an article last week about toughness." Weber relates. "The kids think it's pounding your chest when you get a dunk. It's playing strong, it's setting a screen, it's blocking out, making a stop when you need it. It's body language when things don't go right. It's taking responsibility. That's what toughness is. I think this article is perfect for us.

"I've been writing the words 'mental toughness, physical toughness' on the board since day one. Because I know that's a question mark for our season. It is a fact the teams that have toughness are the teams that are successful.

"Toughness is what wins road games. Gene Keady always instilled toughness. Bo Ryan's teams up to this year had toughness. Tom Izzo's teams won't back down to anyone."

Unfortunately, the Illini players have fragile egos, especially after the torture they went through last season. Failure is still fresh in their minds, and seeing themselves miss most of their shots makes them fear a repeat from times past. Weber says all his players have this problem to some degree, but center Mike Tisdale seems to be affected most.

"We have some young kids, maybe some sensitive kids. Mike Tisdale leaves his feelings on his sleeve probably the worst of anybody. He just gets down on himself. He's got to get through that.

"We need to score points in the paint, and he's the one that can get it. He hits that lefty hook and then goes down and gets a cheap foul, and then we don't have him in the game. He's got to fight through tough times. I think Mike Davis is the same. It makes a big difference."

When the tough times occur, Illini players appear to panic and forget their teamwork and fundamentals. They let their offensive woes affect their defense and rebounding, magnifying their problems. Weber describes the scenario.

"I think it's a mixture of not making some shots, taking some quick shots, and then trying to make some plays when things go bad. I think we're dribbling too much. We start dribbling too much when we start trying to make some plays. Right now, we don't have the physical capability to take people off the dribble. And then we didn't get to the free throw line either."

Illinois needs some easy baskets to improve their shooting confidence.

"We've got to get some easy shots. Last night, we out rebound them by 16 or 17 and have way more offensive rebounds, but they outscore us on second chance points. So we've got to find ways of getting some easy baskets that will help our scoring percentage."

Trent Meacham has been in a shooting slump for several games now. He is putting in extra time, which may actually remind him of his slump rather than give him confidence. Regardless, he realizes he and the team need to get back to what was successful earlier in the season.

"I think we've gotten away from some of the little things we did early in the year. We've got to get back to the fundamentals.

"You've got to be confident to play. Offensively and defensively, you've got to play with a little bounce in your step. On the road, we haven't had that. Hopefully, we can get that back this Sunday."

As much as Meacham might want to focus on his shooting technique, as a senior leader it is his job to keep his teammates uplifted. That is problematic when you lack confidence yourself. And yet he understands how helping others can ultimately help yourself.

"I think my job is to not worry so much about myself but help the other guys. If I can do that, then it helps yourself as well. Forget about yourself a little bit and help get the other guys going."

Alex Legion was expected to be a big help to the Illini off the bench, but he is struggling even more than Meacham. Weber wishes Alex could ignore all the pressures that come from being a highly-ranked player.

"I think there's a lot of pressure. People have unrealistic expectations. And now he's put so much pressure on himself. I think he wants to fit in, he wants to do well, he wants to guard, but these are things he's never done before. And now it's just kind of overwhelmed him.

"I hope he got through a low point last night. He's got to break out of it sometime. He's got to take better shots. He'll have a good shot and miss it, and then he tries to make tougher shots. I feel bad for him because he is a good kid and he does work at it."

Mike Tisdale may be battling a lack of confidence, but he seemed determined to make something positive out of the rest of the season. His words give hope to the Illini faithful."I don't think anything is over for this team yet. We've got quite a bit of season left. We've hit a rough patch, but we've got to get ready to practice and get better."

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