NCAAs in sight, Illini's bad days in Vegas fading
Two bad days last November left Illinois' basketball team hoping that Las Vegas' signature slogan was right, what happens there, stays there.
Disappointing losses there to Utah and Bradley cost the Illini their Top 25 ranking, and those games were followed by a road loss to a dismal Georgia team.
A potentially promising season looked ready to unravel.
Now, at 18-10 (10-5 Big ten) and an NCAA berth within reach, it's almost like those two bad days in Vegas never happened - with the emphasis on almost.
``We've created our own dilemma,'' a still-worried Bruce Weber said Friday while he talked about Saturday's game with Minnesota. ``We've got great wins, but we've got some questionable losses, too.''
The great wins have all come since that bad, early run. They include upsets of four teams that were ranked at the time of the games: Wisconsin, Michigan State, Clemson and Vanderbilt.
Somewhere along the way, even as forward Mike Davis lost his shooting touch, his confidence and his starting job, a couple of Illinois freshman started looking like college players, and junior guard Demetri McCamey became one of the Big Ten's best.
The freshmen - D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul - were two of the reasons the Illinois started the season in the Top 25, along with Davis and, if he could play a little defense and show some consistency, McCamey.
Richardson has started all but one game, and - while scoring 10.7 points a game - has consistently drawn the toughest defensive assignments since Big Ten play started - Ohio State's Evan Turner and Michigan's Manny Harris among them.
``I don't think he's straight out locked down people, but he's really made those people work,'' Weber said.
``For a freshman,'' Weber added, ``he's logged a whole bunch of minutes.''
Paul hasn't started a game since Big Ten play started, but, after a midseason slump, Weber says the 6-4 guard has earned a good deal of the coach's trust.
Make no mistake, though - McCamey's the single biggest reason that Illinois finds itself a win or two away from a likely NCAA berth.
McCamey, whom Weber frequently criticizes for lack of focus and lack of defense, lost his starting job for two games as the Big Ten schedule opened. But he roared back.
He leads the Illini in scoring at 15.8 points a game, including 22 in a win over then-No. 5 Michigan State and 27 in the upset Wisconsin - then ranked 11th - earlier in February.
But, as important as his scoring, Weber says, McCamey has learned how to contribute when he isn't scoring. He leads the Big Ten in assists at 6.8 a game and had nine rebounds in Tuesday's win at Michigan.
``He is figuring out if he does that, people appreciate that, and he does get recognition,'' Weber said.
After the Michigan game, Davis, who has recently returned to the starting lineup, largely credited McCamey for the win in spite of the team's cold shooting.
``Demetri's all over the place,'' Davis said. ``Sometimes he gets assists, sometimes he gets rebounds. I told him he should have had a triple-double. We all apologized for not making shots for him.''
If Illinois beat Minnesota (16-11, 7-8 and in sixth place in the Big ten) in Champaign on Saturday, some observers think they're in the NCAAs.
Weber says the Illini need two more wins before he'll start to feel comfortable, but that will take at least one more regular season Big Ten win over a ranked team. Illinois plays at No. 9 Ohio State Tuesday before closing March 7 against the No. 17 Badgers and heading into the conference tournament.
The wait until Selection Sunday on March 14, he said, is ``going to be very nerve wracking, if we can get to that point. We've just got to finish strong.''