Last week, Illinois coach Bruce Weber defended the Big 10, reminding anyone who would listen that the conference can stand up to most anyone in all the most important categories. The subject came up again in his teleconference because the Illini and Penn State meet Thursday. It was these two teams that struggled to a 38-33 result in Champaign, the low score giving national pundits reason to discredit the conference. Weber realizes that talk must be supported by action.
"More and more, you're evaluated on what you do in postseason. The Big 10 Tournament is great, but if you want to have the fans and everyone excited about you, you've got to continue that and do well in the (NCAA)tournament. The only way we can back it up is play well in the tournament, hope we get 6-7 teams in it and then advance them."
The Illini want to be on an upswing as they enter post season play, not only for seeding for the tournaments but for developing the confidence necessary to compete against top teams. He needs all his players healthy and functioning at peak efficiency.
Senior guard Chester Frazier suffered a painful bruise against Michigan State. Weber hopes he will be ready to go Thursday.
"It was a bad fall, if you watched on the tape. In person it was bad. I think it looked even worse on the tape. Chester's cheek toward his hip is basically black and blue/purple. He's got some swelling and will definitely be stiff today. We've got to get him loosened up and hope by Thursday night late, which gives him an extra day, he's ok."
Of course, Frazier practiced full go Tuesday. The Illini have been fortunate with injuries all year. But they are still trying to develop more depth. Weber is still hoping to get Alex Legion going because he can provide a scoring threat off the bench.
Ultimately, how much Legion plays depends on what is needed and how Alex responds to his opportunities. Weber inserted him in the first half of the MSU game, hoping to get him going.
"He had some opportunities. I was happy, at least he took 2's. If he'd gotten that layup down, it would have been a good confidence boost for him. I just felt bad for him. He needed to find something to build with confidence wise. We still haven't given up on him. We're hoping he'll break out of it down the stretch and really help us."
Legion has strugged with his confidence after being in a shooting slump all season.
"Yeah, he's gotten frustrated and lost a little confidence. Just normal things that happen when it doesn't go as good as you want. Yes, we wish we could fast forward to next year to start over, but you can't. He's still got time to get the most out of right now.
"He has a chance to help us and get confidence. But you've got to do it in practice. I hope he comes back with a good attitude and keeps working at it. I think he went through a period there where he really felt sorry for himself. I think he's through that and is trying to tackle it right now."
The bench in general is needed to provide energy and give the starters a breather. It would help if the reserves were operating at peak efficiency.
"Of the two or three things that we can improve going into the postseason, one is the bench. We're hoping we can get them clicking down the stretch.
"We got Calvin (Brock) going a little bit, (Jeff) Jordan's been solid. We need Dominique (Keller) and somebody else to step up so we can feel comfortable if we get someone in foul trouble or whatever may come up. They can make a difference in the game. If they're not practicing well, it's really hard for the coaches to put them in there. I think the next couple days will determine how we approach Alex or any of those guys."
Jeff Jordan has helped of late, but Weber has to be conscious of personnel groupings when using him.
"He's shot more in practice, but he doesn't get many looks. One of our problems is, when we get him in there, depending on who he's with, he is more of a point guard and needs the ball to be successful. But if he's with Demetri (McCamey) and Chester, now he's the third guard.
"I've talked to him about finding a way to be involved without the ball with cutting and stuff. That's not been something that he's done in the past. He does push the ball in practice probably better than anyone else on the team. He gets in the lane.
"Maybe we need to give him a few more minutes to see if he can do something with the right mix. We've got to have the right mix with him and a couple shooters with him to make sure we don't get bogged down offensively with certain groups."
Another thing Weber wants to improve is scoring late in the shot clock.
"It seems each game in the Big 10 is close and comes down to a couple plays at the end. Someway, we've got to find a way to get a bucket or get to the free throw line. Even Michigan State, a top 6 or 7 team in the country, had trouble the last part of the game. But they were able to score two or three possessions that we weren't, and that was the difference in the game. So we've got to be a little more efficient."
Defense is the word in the Big 10, and teams have found it easier to stop Illinois with a man-to-man defense than a zone. Illinois' offense must continue to evolve and discover new options to counter close guarding.
"We'll see if we can get a little sharper and find a couple more ways to score. A part of it is getting (Mike) Tisdale to the block. He kind of grew up the second half (against MSU). Cutting, screening, making the next pass, finding ways to get it to him. We've got to get open shots. With zones, if you work it and pass it, you seem to get the easier open shots."
Michigan State and Ohio State also caused problems for the Illini on out of bounds plays. That is another area that needs work.
"What teams have done is zone us on the out-of-bounds plays. It kind of takes away any sets you might have. It is one of Ohio State's focuses. They do a really good job. They even put a big guy on the ball to deny things. You've got to find something that works against them. We had trouble getting it in.
"With Michigan State, you're hoping to steal a basket here and there. What it came down to, we had to throw it long, they went back to man, and you've got to get into your stuff."
Illinois' Thursday night game at Penn State completes the Big 10 portion of their schedule. The absence of a game on the weekend gives it more time to recuperate from a grueling schedule and prepare for equally grueling Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
"Because of the bye, we're gonna give them two whole days, almost three days off. You hope a weekend away from it might be a good thing for us. I always fear coming back, anytime you lay around a couple of days, you don't feel the same. But overall I think it will be a good break for our guys. We do have that little built-in window to get refreshed for the stretch run."