CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber has company. He isn't the only coach grasping for answers just past the midway point in the Big Ten Conference basketball season. While top-ranked Ohio State leads the league ahead of a second-place tie between Purdue and Wisconsin, the rest of the Big Ten hasn't lived up to the preseason billing. Minnesota and Michigan State, two formidable teams when the conference race began, also hit the skids.
CHAMPAIGN -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber has company.
He isn't the only coach grasping for answers just past the midway point in the Big Ten Conference basketball season. While top-ranked Ohio State leads the league ahead of a second-place tie between Purdue and Wisconsin, the rest of the Big Ten hasn't lived up to the preseason billing. Minnesota and Michigan State, two formidable teams when the conference race began, also hit the skids.
"We're disappointed,'' Weber said on the Big Ten teleconference Monday. "We had high expectations. There's still a lot of basketball to go. A lot can happen in the last four weeks.''
Illinois (15-8 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten) lost five of its last seven games. The Illini play at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6) on Thursday (8 p.m., BTN).
Coach Tubby Smith's Gophers have a three-game losing streak and still searches for answers following a foot injury to point guard Al Nolen, whose return this season isn't guaranteed. Smith said Monday senior Blake Hoffarber (knee) will be fine for Illinois.
Hoffarber is receiving treatment on a bursa sac and limped through the second half of an 82-69 loss to top-ranked Minnesota Sunday. Hoffarber is averaging 14.2 points per game but carrying more responsibility while serving as the point guard following Nolen's injury.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo called it the "toughest point in his career'' but said, "I don't think this team has quit in any way.''
The Spartans lost six of their last nine games -- the three wins came in overtime -- and dropped losses last week at Iowa (72-52) and Wisconsin (82-56).
"I've had a lot of years that have gone the other way,'' Izzo said. "I've got to work my way out of this. It's something that we as a team have to do. Nobody should give us any slack or make any excuses. I could see where people think this team has given up hope. With the way we practiced and worked, that's not the case.''
Meanwhile, Illinois guard Demetri McCamey was one of 10 finalists named for the Cousy Award for the nation's top point guard. Mired in the biggest slump of his career, McCamey was 4-for-6 from the field in the 71-70 loss at Northwestern Saturday after shooting 6-for-31 in the three previous games.
The final cut for the Cousy Award comes on March 10, when five players will be presented to Bob Cousy and his selection committee. The winner is announced on the Final Four weekend. The list of finalists included BYU's Jimer Freddette, Duke's Nolan Smith and Connecticut's Kemba Walker.
In a scheduling note, the Illinois game against Iowa in Assembly Hall has been set as a 6 p.m. tip on Feb. 26.
TENNIS: Former Illini Kevin Anderson won his first ATP title Sunday by taking the championship match Sunday in the SA Tennis Open in Johannesburg, South Africa. Ranked No. 59 in the world, Anderson is the top-ranked South African and the first player from his country to win an ATP title since 2005.
"Not only winning a tour title, but winning it here in South Africa is a great experience and memory I'll have for the rest of my life,'' said Anderson, an NCAA doubles champion during his Illini career.
Anderson donated a portion of the $76,500 first prize to the Save the Rhino campaign.
"He had his sights set on being a top 10 player since the day he arrived at Illinois,'' said Illini coach Brad Dancer. "This is another step in that direction.''
IN OTHER NEWS: Senior Daniel Ribeiro earned Big Ten gymnast of the week after earning the gold on the pommel horse at the U.S. Winter Cup Challenge on Saturday in Las Vegas. He won the pommel horse at the prestigious event for the second consecutive season. Ribeiro also took gold in August at the USA Visa Championships in August.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.