Four seniors had no time to wait until next year. With an incoming recruiting class ranked No. 8 by Rivals.com, the future looked bright enough for the skeptics to look past this season.
Four seniors had no time to wait until next year.
With a recruiting class ranked No. 8 by Rivals.com, the future looks bright enough for the skeptics to look past this season. With senior guards Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham playing the best basketball of their careers, No. 20 Illinois has enjoyed a renaissance just as big -- and much faster -- than the overhaul of Memorial Stadium across the street.
When the Illini (23-6 overall, 11-5 in the Big Ten Conference) host No. 9 Michigan State (22-5, 12-3) on Sunday (3 p.m., CBS) on Senior Day, the Illini still have a shot at the Big Ten title. By winning their last two games, the Illini would be assured of no worse than the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
If there's a three-way tie between Illinois, Michigan State and Purdue, the Illini would earn the No. 1 seed to the conference tournament through the tiebreaker. Apparently, next year will have to wait.
"At the beginning, we used it as a motivator that everybody was talking about the future and the recruits,'' said Illini coach Bruce Weber. "I tried to express to them that I'm worried about now. I think you can be successful. They bought into that. Slowly but surely, we nurtured ourselves into a pretty solid basketball team.''
A loss to the Spartans would eliminate the Illini from Big Ten championship contention. The Illini won five of their last six games.
"It would be a shame to lose Sunday,'' Frazier said. "It comes down to making plays, getting stops and rebounding to win this game. It would be big for the seniors to go out with a bang.
"It feels good to shut up the doubters. You read some of the news clippings from earlier in the year that said we'd finish seventh or eighth in the Big Ten. To have a chance to contend for the title is big. You've got the bandwagon guys. Who cares. It feels good to win. That's the main thing right now -- the winning.''
For it to happen, the Illini needed a solid contribution from the senior class.
It started with Frazier, the point guard from Baltimore who is a candidate for Big Ten defensive player of the year. By relying on his teammates more, Frazier didn't try to do too much this season. He leads Big Ten with 5.3 per game. A coach in the making, he will likely accept a role of student assistant coach next season at Illinois.
Meacham's 10.3-point scoring average is nearly the same as last season (10.1), but he's become a better defender. A transfer from Dayton, the former Champaign Centennial star returned home as a walk-on before earning a scholarship.
Reserve Calvin Brock, who found himself in Weber's doghouse through the years, settled into a defensive role. He had four steals in 14 minutes in the 52-41 victory over Minnesota Thursday. C.J. Jackson, a big man who bounced between basketball and football, will graduate this spring and not return to the team next fall.
"Each one has a unique story,'' Weber said. "Trent coming back home was a little controversial. The Dayton guys didn't want to lose him. I didn't know if Calvin would ever make it. I didn't think he'd made it to the fifth year. He accepted his role and loves to play. C.J. is the bubbly teddy bear that everybody likes. He should go back and run for mayor. He's always shaking hands and hugging people.
"Chester has gone through so many injuries and probably played when 98 percent of the guys wouldn't. The things he fought through were just amazing.''
Wait 'til next year? These guys can't wait 'til this weekend or March Madness.
"When you get into the tournament, I really believe anything can happen,'' Meacham said. "Guys start shooting. Everyone starts playing well. You need some lucky anything can happen. Every year there are upsets. We can be one of those teams this year.''
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.