Illinois coach Bruce Weber described his team’s upcoming Big Ten matchup with Michigan State as a "character game."
The Illini are coming off three consecutive conference losses and have dropped to 4-4 in the Big Ten as they get set to face No. 10 Michigan State on Tuesday in Champaign, Ill. Weber has had just one four-game Big Ten losing streak in nine years at Illinois. His 2007-2008 team lost four in a row and went 5-13 in the Big Ten.
“Three other teams have been in similar situations in the league and have responded," Weber said Monday. "Wisconsin losing three in a row, Indiana losing [three], Minnesota losing [three]. How you respond to it is so important. All three of those teams responded and came back and got some wins and got on the positive side.
“We have to see what we’re about and if we can beat the challenge. It’s not going to be easy. Michigan State is a good, quality team.”
In Illinois’ loss to Penn State on Jan. 19, Weber was disappointed with his team’s attitude. In its loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 22, he was upset with his players’ toughness down the stretch.
In the Illini’s third consecutive loss against Minnesota on Saturday, he was actually pleased with his team’s overall performance.
“I thought the other night the guys did what we had to do to win the game, we just didn’t win the game,” Weber said. “We talked about mental toughness, physical toughness, execution and rebounding. I thought we showed great mental toughness coming back on the road, some of the best execution in the second half we’ve had all year, got the ball to the right people and scored, 15-2 run on the road. You put yourself in a good position.”
Illinois struggled against Minnesota in shooting and taking care of the ball. The Illini shot 3-of-21 from 3-point range and committed 16 turnovers in the loss.
Outside shooting has been a problem for Illinois most of this season. The Illini are ranked 261st in the country with a .319 3-point shooting percentage.
“With all the guys, Brandon [Paul] included, they don’t work hard enough to get good shots,” Weber said. “If you’re not shooting well, you can’t take dumb shots. D.J. [Richardson] has to work harder to get good shots.”
Richardson’s 3-point shooting has dipped since injuring his wrist against Northwestern on Jan. 4. He was hitting 40.6 percent of his 3-pointers heading into the Northwestern game. Since the injury, he’s shot 8-of-26 from 3-point range, dropping him to 38.9.
“He lost his confidence,” Weber said. “The first week he couldn’t even bend it. Now, you lose your mental confidence. You lost your rhythm. Again, it’s mental toughness. If you’re a player, you got to step up and be a player.”
Weber mentioned mental toughness a few times on Monday. He thought it was one of the key ingredients to success in the Big Ten.
“I got to be hard on them today,” Weber said of Monday’s practice. “Michigan State doesn’t care that we lost. Nobody cares. It’s a loss. You got to come back and play. We got to have toughness. If you’re going to survive in this league, you have to have toughness down the stretch.”