Illinois coach Bruce Weber has been touting the Big 10 tournament to his team as a chance for a fresh start. Forget about all the trials and tribulations of the long regular season. Ignore the recent losing streak and remember the times they played well. Come out Friday with renewed energy and enthusiasm.
That's the plan, but can the players carry it out? Can they reach into their reserves of inner strength and defeat a top 15 team with all its parts securely in place? Can they play relaxed and confident while facing the most pressure of the season? After all, a loss almost definitely drops them out of the NCAA Tournament, their season-long goal.
Weber remains upbeat.
"It's a big week for us. There's a lot on the line. We're excited about it."
He found solace in the team's attitude Monday after the deflating loss at home to the Badgers the day before.
"The game Sunday did not go as you had hoped, but we watched the game film Monday. We were gonna take the day off, but the players said they need the practice. We had one of our better practices in awhile. I thought it was great energy, great competitive spirit. They got after it."
Everything the Illini did in practice Monday was highly competitive. They split up into two teams and battled each other for an hour or so in a variety of drills and scrimmages. The losing side each time had to do extra running, something no one desired. Weber wants them to play with that intensity against Wisconsin.
The Illini hadn't seen much of 6'-11" Jon Leuer this year due to his wrist injury, so they were surprised by the quality of his play Sunday. Perhaps reserve forward Tyler Griffey described it best.
"This is the first time I've watched him, and he's a great player and has really good moves down low. This week's gonna be about defending the post for me and the rest of the bigs. We've got to keep the ball from his hands.
"I was recruited by them. My junior year I went up there for a visit, and I played pick-up against him. I bet he's put on 30-40 pounds since his freshman year. He's added a couple moves to his arsenal in the off season. He's really improved."
UW has five competent starters, all of whom can burn you if left alone. Leuer's presence gives his teammates more scoring opportunities as opponents try to restrict his game. Weber talks about how the Illini must defend him.
"Leuer's last couple games have been impressive. He adds a lot to them. When you miss a guy in midseason, it allows some other guys to play. That helps you when you get in foul trouble, and it helps to give other guys confidence. He gives them an inside presence.
"We talk a lot about having to play defense before your man catches the basketball. You can't let him get it in a spot where he can be comfortable. We have to do a better job this next time of defending him, not letting him catch the ball so deep.
"You can post-trap him, but they have so many good shooters including the five man, it almost plays into their hands. We have to do a better job of not letting him catch the ball in his comfort zones."
Frankly, the Illini need to hope the Badgers have a bad shooting day. Any effort to help on Leuer leaves sharpshooters Trevon Hughes, Jason Bohannon, Jordan Taylor and Keaton Nankivil open for easy shots. Any Illinois player sloughing off defensively creates the same effect. Only a complete defensive game by all Illini can counter UW's strengths.
Weber says the Illini also need to make shots.
"So much with our guys depends on how we shoot the basketball. We're an offensive-minded group. Maybe the tenseness of the situation...let loose and play. All year, we've been that type of team. We're laid back, we're casual at times. And then we're able to turn it on and have some frantic comebacks against good teams.
"I'm hoping we can shoot it better. But I'm also hoping we can get after it better, especially on defense. Their style is to move it, move it, kind of put you to sleep. And then all of a sudden they make a move and attack you. I hope maybe we can dictate a little more."
Griffey repeats Weber's mantra for the week.
"We've just got to play with intensity. We've got to be the enforcer. Come out strong early and keep it up."
D.J. Richardson has defended top guards all season, and he will have another tough assignment Friday. He is right when he says the Illini must do more defensively than focus on Leuer.
"Hopefully we come out with a victory. We've got to keep all the guards under their average."
It can be tough to stay confident when you have lost 5 of the last 6 games. All but one have been to top 15 teams, but that notion provides minimal solace when wins are needed. That is especially hard for players like Mike Davis who take losses to heart.
"I don't know. It's a little tough. We've got to stay positive, that's the most important thing. We know we can beat them. We beat them there, and no one else in the league has done it."
It can also be tough to play the same team twice consecutively. Weber has a good reminder for players who hope to play professionally some day.
"You get a feel for the NBA playoffs. Can you make little adjustments? If we do a better job on the boards and shoot the ball, that would help."
Despite occasionally butting heads with point guard Demetri McCamey, Weber knows how much his team depends on the playmaker.
"I still say we go as Demetri goes. He didn't get off to a great start and really never got going whether it was distributing or scoring the basketball (Sunday). I'm sure they made some adjustments, a little better focus on him. But I just didn't think he ran things like he needed to. We are good when he reads the open guy.
"To his credit, (Mike) Tisdale drops a couple passes that could be layups. We miss some open shots. He could have 8-9 assists again. At times, he goes back to his old way of making decisions before the play happens. He's got to let the game come to him."
McCamey agrees it is hard to play the same team twice in a row. But it is what it is, and the Illini have to take advantage of the opportunity.
"It's very difficult. But at the same time, we found out some things we have to work on and some things we've got to change. Hopefully we can come out with a victory on Friday."
Some may disagree, but McCamey is convinced pressure doesn't bother the Illini.
"I think we play better in those types of games. Everybody looks forward to it and gets pumped. I think we're gonna come out Friday and play extremely well."
As the team's quarterback, McCamey continues to learn how to counter UW's defensive schemes. He knows a good game is possible despite what happened Sunday.
"We didn't make shots, and we didn't step up our defense like we did in Madison. That's what we've got to work on, getting our communication and playing as a whole. We've had a roller coaster season, but we can make everything positive with a win Friday.
Weber tried all the motivational tricks in the days leading up to the last Badger game to no avail. In the final analysis, it is the team that plays best that wins.
"It's not about tricks and gimmicks, it's about the guys. Playing like they did in practice Monday. I think that will be the big key. If we get a win Friday, it would put a nice little exclamation point on it."