It's become a catch phrase early in the basketball season, after No. 19 Illinois survived a handful a close calls.

Illinois wouldn't have won that game last year.

The Illini said it themselves a few times already, including last week vs. St. Bonaventure when guard Brandon Paul rallied the Illini from a nine point down in the final 5 minutes 22 seconds.

Said Illini junior guard D.J. Richardson. "The last couple of years, it comes down to the wire like this, we let the game slip away. We have a different team this year. We're tougher this year. We've got more hungry guys. We've got better defenders and tougher players.''

Said center Meyers Leonard: "Last year, maybe the year before and the year before that, I’m not sure we win that game. This year, we have a different team.''

Said guard Sam Maniscalco: "You're bound to have games where you don’t play well. It says a lot about our guys as far as sticking together down the stretch. This (St. Bonaventure) win will definitely pay dividends down the road.''

Then, another dud. A closer-than-the-score-indicated 80-63 win over Coppin State Sunday showed the Illini (10-0) still have plenty to learn before playing UNLV Saturday (4 p.m., BTN) in Chicago. About a month into the season, the freshmen who gave the Illini so much energy and drive early are hitting a wall, coach Bruce Weber said, and the Illini might have gotten a big head.

"If we don't have their attention after St. Bonaventure and tonight, I hope they're a little bit humbled right now,'' Weber said after the Illini led Coppin State 59-57 with 8 minutes left.

There's no need to point fingers or name names. Everyone knows who left town (four seniors and troubled freshman Jereme Richmond) and who was added (six freshmen and a transfer). 

The chemistry wasn't as bad as suggested last season, Weber said, but there's a mental toughness this season that was missing a year ago.

"So far, we've proven that,'' Weber said. "There's a competitive spirit that you need and a tenacity to win games when everything is going wrong. We showed that a little bit.

"We didn't show that last year. We lost some games we shouldn't have lost. We did recover and had a good finish. Overall, we're a better team right now. We've got a long way to go.''

But the Illini have lost some drive over the past couple weeks.

"This is an important stretch,'' Weber said. "They've had a good attitude for this part. You're not going to play perfect every game. We've got to get back in practice, start getting some energy in there again.''

The freshmen have hit a wall, Weber said, and that means the depth will suffer. In the last four games, the bench contributed 26 points.

While there's cautious optimism outside the locker room, Weber is ready for another push, because the Big Ten might be the best league in the country.

FOOTBALL: Toledo promoted interim head coach Matt Campbell to the full-time position, eliminating Campbell from the possibility of taking over offensive coordinator at Illinois. The Rockets averaged 42.2 points a game this season, ranking eighth nationally in scoring offense.

Illinois coach Tim Beckman also met with the Illini coaching staff Monday and awaited an appeal with the NCAA that would allow Illinois to have to coaching staffs in place: one to work the bowl game, one to begin recruiting for the future. Ohio State was granted such a pass.

VOLLEYBALL: Illinois (31-4), seeded third in the field of 64, faces seventh seed Southern Cal (29-4) in the Final Four Thursday (8 p.m., ESPN2) in San Antonio, Texas, after ninth seed UCLA (28-6) meets 12th seed Florida State (28-6) in the other semifinal. The winners play Saturday (7:30 p.m., ESPN2) for the national title.

The Illini make their third Final Four appearance all-time and first since 1988.

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.