If the Illinois basketball senior class wants to finish with a bang, the clock is ticking. With eight games to go in the regular season, time is running out on a class that planned for a big finish in a career that, at this point, includes one NCAA tournament berth and no NCAA wins. "This is it,'' said Illini senior forward Mike Davis. "I don't want to go out a loser. I want to go out with a bang, go back in the tournament and make some noise. We have to grind these games and do it. We have to come out with energy and play hard.
CHAMPAIGN - If the Illinois basketball senior class wants to finish with a bang, the clock is ticking.
With eight games to go in the regular season, time is running out on a class that planned for a big finish in a career that, at this point, includes one NCAA tournament berth and no NCAA wins.
"This is it,'' said Illini senior forward Mike Davis. "I don't want to go out a loser. I want to go out with a bang, go back in the tournament and make some noise. We have to grind these games and do it. We have to come out with energy and play hard.
"We're a good team. We should be top 10 in the country. Go look at the tape. We're a couple stops, a couple buckets and a couple rebounds from being right there.''
Illinois was ranked No. 13 in the preseason top 25, and the Illini fell out of both major polls this week for the first time all season.
Just how close the Illini are from an NCAA bid -- or the top 25 -- is in the eye of the beholder. Illinois (15-8 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten) likely needs four or possibly five wins. The Illini play at Minnesota (16-7, 5-6) on Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN).
An unheralded recruiting class when they arrived, seniors Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Bill Cole and Davis face the obstacle of winning games with the pressure mounting. Individually, the stats look good.
Guard Demetri McCamey is the only active player in college basketball with 1,500 points and 600 assists. Davis surpassed 1,000 points and ranks sixth all time at Illinois in rebounding. Tisdale also passed the 1,000-point mark, and forward Bill Cole won the Matto Award for hustle points last season. Collectively, they don't bring enough toughness, coach Bruce Weber said.
"You have to find talent,'' Weber said. "That's important. Guys who make plays. You also need some toughness and leadership. That's a hard thing to recruit. For us to be a really special team, if we had a little more toughness and leadership in the mixing bowl with the talent we have, we'd come out with a pretty good product.''
When teams find the special players, guys who have talent and toughness such as Deron Williams and Dee Brown from the Illini's past or Ohio State's David Lighty and Jared Sullinger, "that's when you have special teams,'' Weber said.
But Weber felt like the Illini added more toughness in recruiting with the five-man class of current high school seniors. Chicago Mount Carmel guard Tracy Abrams "has a little bit of an edge,'' Weber said, and Chicago St. Ignatius forward Nnanna Egwu "plays his butt off, loves to play.'' Chicago De La Salle forward Mike Shaw, like Abrams, has taken three charges in one game.
Freshmen Jereme Richmond, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head have that competitive drive, Weber said. Without a scholarship junior, the Illini didn't fill the holes of the senior class.
The Illini lost five of their last seven games.
"Everybody is down -- the coach and the players,'' said guard D.J. Richardson. "We just have to pick it up somehow. If we could flip Demetri's switch, we'd be good as a team. If we could get Demetri to go, the whole team would go.''
Tisdale hit a wall because he relies upon McCamey's ability to set up scoring opportunities, such as the pick and pop. Without McCamey's game sliding and his confidence sagging, Tisdale also came up empty. Defense is the key, said Davis, who is not known as a lockdown defender.
"Guys are just worried about their offense and not guarding the way they should be guarding,'' Davis said. "If we worry about offense, we'll keep losing.''
Weber doesn't plan wholesale changes, although there might be some juggling with players who are hot and who are not. The Illini held a competitive scrimmage Tuesday, and Weber said playing time was up for grabs. Leonard started the second half at Northwestern ahead of Tisdale, and guard Brandon Paul's minutes went up in the last week at the expense of McCamey.
"I don't know if I want to go crazy,'' Weber said. "We made changes at halftime (at Northwestern). Sometimes the bench can be a little jolt of reality and get someone's attention.''
Not only did Weber sound like he's sticking with the seniors, he was sticking up for them Tuesday.
Cole "is a great story,'' Weber said. "He's taken more abuse from the fans and media than anybody. At points, he might be as valuable as anybody on the team.
"I'm just hoping for their sake they have a good finish and do some special things and leave a real positive legacy. They're great kids. Maybe one of their downfalls is they're too good of kids. You could use an ornery edge on the court. Maybe that's one thing they don't have.''
They also don't have a win in March Madness. Right now, they must fight their way into the NCAAs. Time is running out.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.