Inconsistent Illini need big finish

Manny Harris averages 18.5 points and 6.2 rebounds for Michigan. David Stluka/Icon SMI

It’s amazing how a team’s situation can quickly change in college basketball as March approaches and crunch time hits.

No one knows this better than the Illini.

Two weeks ago, Illinois was on top of the world. There weren’t many players in the country playing better than junior Demetri McCamey. Every shot seemed to fall, and his teammates chipped in as needed. That combination led to wins over Michigan State and at Wisconsin, put the Illini atop the Big Ten standings and had them in the NCAA Tournament. Illinois was even on the verge of being ranked.

Today, the Illini are in a whole different position. McCamey may be distributing assists at an all-time rate, but his shooting percentage has dropped, his teammates haven’t done enough to compensate and the team’s defense has been too inconsistent. Together, it led to losses to Ohio State and Purdue. All of a sudden, Illinois find itself in fifth place in the conference with a 9-5 record, again on the NCAA bubble and entering a crucial four-game stretch to their season.

The road begins Tuesday night at Michigan, a team even more desperate than Illinois. The Wolverines need wins now just to salvage an NIT berth. The Illini may be the better team, and Michigan has struggled at home, but the Wolverines also have the capability of being a spoiler when Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are clicking. Michigan has wins over Ohio State (though without Evan Turner) and Connecticut and narrowly lost to Michigan State and Wisconsin.

Then Illinois hosts Minnesota on Saturday. The Golden Gophers are in a slightly worse predicament than the Illini. Minnesota needs to win almost all of its remaining games and have a decent Big Ten Tournament showing to give itself a shot at an NCAA Tournament berth. The Gophers haven't played well on the road (2-6) but they have the athletes to compete with Illinois.

The Illini are then off to Ohio State on March 2. The Buckeyes handed it to Illinois in Champaign on Feb. 14 and are coming off another dominant performance at Michigan State. There’s a good chance they could do it again to the Illini in Columbus. Illinois will need to play at its very best to beat the Buckeyes in what will likely be Turner’s final home game.

Finally, Illinois caps its regular season with Wisconsin on March 7. The Badgers may be out of the Big Ten race, but they will look for revenge at Illinois after its home winning streak was snapped by the Illini earlier this month. Wisconsin also has Jon Leuer back.

None of the games are gimmes. When you look inside the numbers (71 RPI rank, 62 strength of schedule, 7-5 in their last 12 games, 5-2 on the road, 0-5 neutral court, 2-2 vs. top 25 RPI, 2-2 vs. 26-50 RPI, 2-2 vs. 51-100 and 5-2 vs. 101-200), it’s easy see that Illinois needs to win these games.

In retrospect, as Illinois has returned to an NCAA Tournament uncertainty, there is also some doubt that arises again over its Michigan State and Wisconsin wins. Leuer (14.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 1.3 blocks) was missing for the Illinois game, and the Badgers went 6-3 without him and have gone 14-4 with him. The Spartans were missing their top player in Kalin Lucas when they played Illinois, too.

The Illini can put those doubts back to rest and do a whole lot more for themselves if they can close out the regular season with an exclamation point. Two wins are likely mandatory. Three would benefit them extremely. Four would be the moon.

Tuesday night their work begins.