INDIANAPOLIS – They are the unwanted guests who just won’t go home, the crashers who ruined the weekend for the hometown fans in this basketball crazy state.
And with one more win, the Illinois Fighting Illini will screw up more people’s plans by battling their way into the NCAA tournament, bursting some team’s proverbial bubble.
They haven’t just triggered angst in Indiana. Ohio State, Dayton, Syracuse and Illinois State are agitated as well.
After topping fellow upstart Minnesota 54-50 Saturday in the Big Ten semifinals at Conseco Fieldhouse, the 10th-seeded Illini couldn’t be happier about making so many angry. They have won four games in a row for the first time all season, and a fifth would deliver them where they expected to be all along, into college sports’ greatest spectacle.
At 16-18, they stand poised to bum rush the bracket, completing an unlikely run under coach Bruce Weber, who has been criticized for not recruiting the caliber of players it takes to win big in this brutal conference.
Suddenly, Illinois is seeing improved production from starters such as senior center Shaun Pruitt. Pruitt was a difference-maker against the Gophers, connecting on 5 of 9 shots for 16 points and pulling down eight rebounds. Then there were his contributions that didn’t show up on the stat sheet.
“We chart loose balls, deflections, charges,” Weber said. “He was our leader in all of them today. I don’t think he’s been our leader all season.
“He gets it now.”
What prompted the big man’s epiphany? Maybe fewer Big Macs.
“I’ve been eating a little bit better,” Pruitt said. “My independent study is in nutrition. I’ve been staying away from the ranch, mayonnaise, stuff like that.
“I’ve just tried to be more focused, thinking about my team and listening to the coaches.”
Senior forward Brian Randle is another Illini peaking at the proper time. He chipped in with 11 points and eight rebounds Saturday. He knows his team has been branded as an underachiever and knows his college legacy is on the line.
“The Big Ten regular season didn’t go as we hoped,” Randle said. “We’ve had a lot of down days. We’ve gained some resilience and some toughness and maturity that has shown throughout these past three games.
“We had to turn it around, and we’ve done that so far.”
After the Illini handled Penn State in the first round, this topsy-turvy tournament began in earnest and confounded the locals Friday when the Illini upset Purdue. Demetri McCamey played the star, knocking down six three-pointers en route to 26 points. Boilermaker fans busted it back to West Lafayette in droves after the unexpected early exit.
Later that night, interloping Minnesota, the sixth seed, defied Indiana and some questionable officiating calls down the stretch with Blake Hoffarber catching a length-of-the-court inbounds pass from Travis Busch with 1.5 seconds left and tossing in a 14-foot leaner with his left hand as time expired.
Hoffarber’s heroics cleared the downtown bars and restaurants, leaving the proprietors’ cash registers a lot lighter than expected with the demise of the anticipated Purdue-Indiana semifinal matchup.
Saturday, the Illini, not the Gophers, kept their dream/nightmare scenario intact.
“It’s a great predicament we’ve got ourselves in,” Pruitt said.
Now, all that stands between Illinois and a berth in the NCAA’s field of 65 is another upset, this time against Wisconsin, the Big Ten regular-season champions. The Badgers scraped past foul-plagued Michigan State 65-63 in Saturday’s other semifinal. To succeed, the Illini will have to find a way to offset Wisconsin’s big three of Brian Butch, Trevon Hughes and Michael Flowers.
That task will fall on Pruitt, Randle and Chester Frazier.
“I think we match up well to be honest,” Randle said. “Butch and Shaun match up inside, and Flowers and Chester. Really the big thing for us to be focused on is preparation and the scouting report. Defensively we have to concentrate.”
The blue-collar Badgers aren’t going to finesse anyone. They play what Weber calls old-school basketball.
“They don’t taunt you, they don’t talk trash,” he said. “It’s the Green Bay Packers sweep. You know it’s coming. Can you stop it?”
Reason tells us the Illini can’t counter this pack, which already owns two wins, by 10 and 14 points, head to head this season. Especially given the fatigue factor of Illinois playing for a fourth consecutive day.
Weber and Randle dismiss such talk.
“If you can’t get up to play a championship game, you shouldn’t play basketball,” Randle said. “Everybody on our team has been through AAU, five or six games in one day in a 100-degree gym.”
Weber isn’t worried about the odds.
“This is what our program expects, to be in this position,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that would not anticipate us being here. We took care of business this weekend. We deserve to be here. We feel we can beat anybody.”
After what’s happened here so far, anything is possible.
Just ask those Purdue and Indiana fans.