Illinois wakes up on top of Big 10, heads to PSU
Illinois coach Bruce Weber and his team woke up in a place not many expected them to be - alone in first place in the Big Ten.
Michigan's win over Michigan State on Tuesday night left the 22nd-ranked Illini (15-3, 4-1) as the only team in the conference with just one league loss. Illinois also moved back into the Top 25 earlier this week after dropping out late last month.
Weber and company head into a game Thursday night that could be a trap, playing at Penn State, a team that's been one big Illinois headache the past few seasons. This year, the struggling Nittany Lions (9-10, 1-5) knocked off Purdue - the one Big Ten team the Illini have lost to.
''The thing that definitely caught our attention,'' Weber said Wednesday, ''when we got beat badly by Purdue and Purdue goes there about three days later and gets their butts kicked.''
Illinois is 4-5 against the Nittany Lions since 2008. That includes an 0-2 regular-season record in both 2007-08 and 2008-09, and a bunch of bad memories - like a 38-33 disaster in February 2009 that set the Illini up for bad finish to the regular season and an early exit from the NCAA tournament.
In addition to beating Purdue by 20, Penn State played Indiana tight. As Weber points out, the Hoosiers had to hit 16 3-pointers to survive.
Given the history, Penn State might not be the team Weber wants to see up next on his young team's schedule.
You might have a hard time drawing up a better scenario for a letdown.
Illinois moved back into the Top 25 on the strength of a 79-74 upset of then-No. 5 Ohio State on Jan. 10, a game in which Brandon Paul had a career night. The junior scored 43 points, while grabbing eight rebounds and blocking four shots. He was 8 of 10 from 3-point range, missed only two of his 15 free throws and scored his team's last 15 points.
It was one of those surreal nights. Players who two weeks earlier were being written off by fans celebrated like they'd won the Big Ten title. Center Meyers Leonard threw Paul over a shoulder as the crowd rushed the floor.
The Illini haven't played since.
But even the time off gave them a boost. Not playing meant not losing and, with the Wolverines' win, Illinois was on top of a league where many figured Ohio State, Michigan State, Michigan or Wisconsin would be at the front of the line. Weber said he isn't sure there are real favorites in many Big Ten games this season.
''We're fortunate,'' he said. ''By having a bye weekend, we wind up in first place.''
Weber said the layoff was good for a team nursing a handful of injuries.
Starting point guard Sam Maniscalco, who missed the Ohio State game with an ankle injury that's troubled him for more than a year, scrimmaged Monday and is expected to play at least 10 minutes at Penn State.
The time off also was a chance to settle down after one of the biggest wins in Weber's eight-plus seasons at Illinois.
''It gave us a chance to come back down to earth,'' he said. ''(They were) flying pretty high after the win.''
But the Illini - and Paul in particular - have a tendency to start flat under even the best of circumstances. And now they are playing after a nine-day layoff.
Paul could well hold the key. He leads the team in turnovers with 57 (3.2 a game) by a wide margin, and Weber says he hopes the big game against the Buckeyes will help Paul become more consistent and make better decisions.
''I've even asked him, `Why do you have a sense of urgency at the end of games that you don't have at the beginning?''' Weber said.
Weber sees the Penn State game as a test of his players' maturity, a test to see how a roster that includes six freshmen - five of whom play regularly - handles success. With a handful of comeback wins, they've already shown they're pretty good at avoiding failure.
''I think that's been, all year, the thing. We've battled, learning to prepare, staying focused, all those words coaches use,'' he said.
He didn't have to look much further than the news conference after the Ohio State win for an example.
Minutes after hoisting Paul in celebration, Leonard sat stern-faced in front of reporters and told them exactly what his coach loved to hear.
''Obviously we can have fun and celebrate it now,'' the big sophomore said. ''But come tomorrow, we've got to be focused on the next game, which is Penn State.''
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