Illinois coach Bruce Weber's team is playing its best basketball of the season, but it is in the midst of a gauntlet of games against strong foes. While they are guaranteed a winning Big 10 record, most feel they need one or two more victories to insure an NCAA berth. Weber knows his Illini cannot rest on their laurels.
"It's down to ten days, three games where we have to have a good finish. There's no doubt we've had our ups and downs during the season, some real high points and some low points. Now, how you finish is what people remember.
"We've made improvement, we play harder and have a better feel for what we are as a team. Now we just hope we can continue that down this last stretch.
"I don't know of any team in the country that has had the 8 game schedule we've had to finish the season. Six teams in the top 20, top 15. And then you add Michigan and Minnesota in there, two pretty good quality teams. It's a tough stretch we have to survive. We've kept our head above water to this point."
Minnesota is not out of the NCAA tourney hunt either, although their backs are to the wall. They cannot afford any more losses, so they should be fired up Saturday.
The Gophers haven't won at Illinois since the 1995-96 season. Most of the players on the current team were in elementary school at the time. But that history must change if the Gophers (16-11, 7-8 Big Ten) expect to give themselves any chance of earning an at-large berth in the NCAA tournament without the aid of a Big Ten tournament title.
After a two-game winning streak that broke up a 3-7 stretch in 10 games, they fell in the final seconds against No. 3 Purdue on Wednesday night at home. Now, they'll have to top the Illini and their two opponents next week to salvage any hope of securing a trip to the Big Dance with anything short of a Big Ten tourney crown.
Weber waxed philosophic while acknowledging the task at hand for both teams.
"Saturday is big. It's big for Minnesota, it's big for us. We'll see how our guys react. It's almost ironic how close it is to last year. Playing Minnesota at home third to last game, our records pretty much the same, maybe a step lower in the conference. And the game has the same importance. History kind of repeats itself."
Minnesota has tremendous potential and poses unique challenges for Illinois. What bothers Weber most?
"Their size, athleticism. They have bulk. They have tall guys, but they have bulk also. And then the athleticism of (Damien) Johnson and (Paul) Carter. They have length and athleticism, shot blocking, rebounding. We had a lot of trouble scoring against them last year. They had trouble scoring against us too."
Sophomore bigs Ralph Sampson III (6'-11", 241) and Colton Iverson (6'-10", 258) have a physical presence inside, and they sometimes play together. Sampson has an effective short hook with either hand, and he has long arms and some bounce. He averages nine points and 6+ rebounds a game. Iverson doesn't score much, but he is a space eater who hustles.
The senior Johnson (6'-7", 205) is mobile and averages double figures. Carter (6'-8", 203) is a junior who spells him. The wing opposite Johnson is junior Blake Hoffarber (6'-4", 210). He is the second leading scorer on the team and is the most prolific three point shooter in the conference. His release is ultra quick and almost impossible to block.
"Hoffarber is one of the keys if you really study it," Weber explains. "When he and (Lawrence) Westbrook (6'-0", 193 senior) score, they usually win. He's 49% from three in the league. That's uncanny. When he gets into a rhythm, it seems like that thing doesn't hit the net.
"We've got to make sure we find him and not let him get going. If he starts making them, now it spreads the defense, Westbrook can penetrate, the big guys can roam inside. It'll be a big key."
Westbrook leads the team in scoring with a 13.1 average, but he blows hot and cold. He hasn't always found open shots since point guard Al Nolen was suspended from the team. Devoe Joseph (6'-3", 179) has replaced Nolen in the starting lineup, but he is not yet proficient as a point guard according to Weber.
"Without Nolen, it hurts them. I think Devoe Joseph has done a nice job, but it's affected him scoring-wise. He's more of a scorer, but he's had to give up that role to help handling the ball. It's made a difference. You're driven by your point guard to get into your stuff, handling the basketball and making the decisions.
"They're still capable. They have played well at times. They've had other distractions too along the way. It's not been an easy season for them."
Minnesota mixes their defenses according to Demetri McCamey.
"They press, they play zone, they play man. As a point guard, I have to recognize and call out the right plays and the right shots for everybody to be on the right page.
"They're pretty long in the front court and backcourt. We've got to match their intensity and get some easy buckets because they're long and active. They get a lot of steals and get a lot of hands on balls."
Minnesota's zone can be effective because of their bulk inside and length on the perimeter. Freshman guard D.J. Richardson says the Illini have worked hard on zone offense during the week.
"We've been going over our 23 offense, our offense for when they play a zone, a lot. And we've been pressing a lot in practice. We need to break the press and get some fast breaks."
It is a big game for Illini bigs Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. For the Illini to win, they need to play Minnesota's big people toe to toe. Davis has had a couple good games in a row, so Weber hopes he will be confident and playing his best Saturday.
"I think he's more confident, feeling better about himself. He's gotten back-to-back double-doubles. We don't have a lot of confident guys. Mike says if he gets going early...The problem is we have 2-3 of those guys we need to get going early and make some shots. But Mike has been feeling good about himself, and he has a big challenge against Minnesota."
Davis is looking forward to the challenge.
"They rebound, they're big. They go big with both Sampson and Iverson in the game. Last year they gave us a little bit of trouble with that. Me, Tisdale and Tyler (Griffey) have to be ready to go in there and fight.
"I think I'm almost back on track. I'm playing with a little more bounce. I'm feeling more confident out there. If I can be aggressive, I think I can be good."
Davis is one of the keys against the Gopher zone.
"Yeah, they're athletic. Johnson is athletic, Westbrook and Hoffarber are active in the zone. It'll be tough. I need to get in the middle and then kick it to D.J. and Bill Cole on the wings or down to Tisdale. We've got to be aggressive in it."
The Illini can win if they relax and play well. But relaxing this late in the season can be problematic according to Weber.
"I think the next ten days to two weeks are gonna be very nerve-wracking. I've been on the bubble a couple times before. We've just got to finish strong. But it's a tense time."
In a game like this, the Illini need their fans to keep them strong and playing at a fever pitch. Weber says the fans can be the difference in the outcome.
"I hope the energy of the crowd, the crowds have been tremendous, could be the difference. I think it's an energy game. How much energy we have, how fresh we are compared to them."