Fighting Illini finally show up

TULSA, Okla. -- Better late than never, the Illinois team we thought we’d see this season showed up.

In force.

It’s been a disappointing slog of a season for the Illini, which began the year in the AP top 15 and ended it sliding close to the 68-team bubble. But with the season on the line Friday night against No. 8 seed UNLV, No. 9 seed Illinois played a spectacular game in a 73-62 victory.

“We’d been inconsistent,” coach Bruce Weber said. “But tonight we were definitely consistent, played at a high level.”

This is how high: Illinois shot 60 percent from the field, 54 percent from 3-point range, and got every shot it wanted thanks to a half-hearted UNLV defense. The final score was laughably deceptive, with a 13-2 closing run by UNLV making it look much closer than reality. Illinois led by 22 at halftime and was never threatened thereafter.

Now we’ll see whether the Illini can put together back-to-back stellar performances.

Illinois hasn’t won two straight games since early January. That doesn’t exactly engender confidence that this team is ready to take down No. 1 seed Kansas on Sunday in the round of 32, but there was plenty of optimism in the Illini locker room Friday night.

“It’s going to be a tough game, but they’re beatable,” said forward Mike Davis, who tore up the Runnin’ Rebels for 22 points and 10 rebounds.

The Illini can harbor optimism for a couple of reasons. One, they’ve played a rigorous schedule -- 18 games against teams in the NCAA tourney field, eight of them against teams with top-four tourney seeds. Two, they’ve come close to having a much better record than their current 20-13 -- they’re 1-8 in games decided by five points or fewer, or in overtime. Finish half of those games correctly, and Illinois is maybe a 5-seed.

But there’s no re-doing what’s already done. Instead, there is simply the chance to make good at the most important time of the year.

“It’s not what you do at the beginning of the year …” said guard Demetri McCamey. “It’s about what you do now. Everybody forgets about what you did at the beginning of the season or the Big Ten season if you go out and win in March.”

It’s been a long time since Illinois won in March. Since 2006, in terms of the NCAA tournament. For a team with four senior starters, getting at least one career Big Dance victory was a major incentive.

“Coming in, we just said we’re going to go as hard as we can,” Davis said. “If we lose and don’t play as hard as we can, I can’t live with that for the rest of my life.”

The one Illinois player who is living with regret right now is freshman swingman Jereme Richmond. One of the team’s top seven players, Richmond did not play Friday night for what Weber termed “a violation of athletic department team rules, nothing more than that.” Weber was non-committal when asked whether Richmond would play Sunday against the Jayhawks.

“It’s something we’ll talk about,” he said.

Friday night, there was finally something good to talk about with this Illinois basketball team. We’ll see how long the Illini can keep the positive vibes flowing.