TULSA, Okla. (AP)—Illinois coach Bruce Weber has more important things to worry about in the NCAA tournament than where he stacks up in a bracket filled with his predecessors.
The Illini (19-13) stumbled down the stretch, losing 10 of their last 16 games to end up closer to the bubble than the top 10. The senior-laden squad led by Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis plummeted from a No. 12 ranking to a mediocre finish in the Big Ten.
Now, they’re one loss away from a disappointing end to a once-promising season.
“It’s do or die. It’s our last game if we lose,” Davis said Thursday, a day before facing No. 8-seeded UNLV.
“I’m not ready for it to be over. I know they’re not ready for it to be over. We want to make a little run here.”
It all starts Friday night against the Runnin’ Rebels (24-8), coached by former Illini coach Lon Kruger. He left after four seasons to take over the Atlanta Hawks in 2000. With a win against UNLV, No. 9 seed Illinois could face top-seeded Kansas and Bill Self, who coached Illinois before Weber took over.
“Any team that has the ability to play as they did on occasion throughout the year, there is a lot of reason for concern,” Kruger said. “No doubt. They have a lot of different weapons and a lot of guys that can make plays.”
Weber and his players mentioned over and over during their news conference the prospect of “new life” now that March Madness has arrived. For a team that hasn’t won consecutive games since Jan. 6, that life will last only if they can find a way to end their frequent struggles closing out tight games anywhere but at home.
“The key for us is when we get to gut check parts of games,” Weber said. “You go through, there’s probably six, seven games this season. They all had the same script.”
The Illini blew a late eight-point lead against Illinois-Chicago in December, a foreshadowing of what was to come. Struggles in the closing minutes also did in Illinois in losses to Missouri, Penn State, Indiana, Northwestern and Michigan State before one final fade—letting a 12-point lead slip away in the final 8 1/2 minutes of last week’s loss to Michigan at the Big Ten tournament.
“We’ve been playing well,” Davis said. “We went through stretches where we played really well for 32-33 minutes and then we fall apart at the end of the game. So, we’ve got to put a complete 40 minutes together, and if we do that, we’ll be pretty tough to beat.”
The Runnin’ Rebels come in with wins in six of their last seven games, and 10 of their last 13. The only losses came against Mountain West regular-season champion BYU and tournament champ San Diego State.
Kruger said that surge came after a midseason patch when players were hampered by knee and wrist injuries that didn’t make headlines but still slowed the Rebels after a 9-0 start to the season.
“You can’t have any letdowns at this stage because it’s like a one-game season,” said Anthony Marshall, one of four UNLV starters back from a one-and-done NCAA tournament appearance last season as a No. 8 seed.
“So, I think right now is a big platform for us to try to make a national statement.”
UNLV is 13-3 in its NCAA tournament openers. Illinois has lost its last two openers, once as a No. 5 seed and once as a No. 12 seed, and is 1-3 since making it to the championship game in Weber’s second season.
To turn around this season’s struggles, Weber has focused the Illini’s pre-tournament practices on late-game defense instead of an offense that has become stagnant in crunch time.
“I’ve tried to emphasize: just make the defensive play,” Weber said. “If you make the defensive stop and they don’t score, we’re still winning the game. We’ve been ahead in almost all of those games.”
Just not at the end, when it counted.
But instead of clinging to bad memories of heartbreaking losses, the Illini’s senior leaders say they’re treating the NCAA tournament like a new season where anything can happen.
“We’re good enough. We’ve just got to find that new life and hope some balls bounce our way a little bit,” Weber said. “Maybe March will be good to us.”