Illinois' turnaround is almost mythic in nature. After a nightmarish season a year ago, the Illini are taking on all comers.
At 17-3, Illinois has positioned itself well to make the NCAA tournament. But if they want to make noise come March, they must answer the following questions.
Can They Get Tisdale the Ball?
When center Mike Tisdale gets rolling, the Illini get rolling. Illinois is 10-0 this season when Tisdale hits double-digit in points, and 8-0 when Tisdale pulls down five or more rebounds in a game.
It’s no coincidence that his larger role in the game plan this season has coincided with Illinois’ turnaround. The Illini will need his presence in the paint as the season goes on.
Can McCamey Become More Consistent?
There’s no question that when Demetri McCamey is on, he’s one of the best players on the court, no matter who the Illini are facing. There’s also no question that when McCamey is off, he’s really off.
He also seems to be the last person on the court who knows it. It’s not a coincidence that in all three Illinois losses, McCamey was shooting bricks. Against Michigan State, in a game his team could have won handily with even an average game from McCamey, he went 0-9 from the field and shot 0-7 from three-point land.
Meanwhile, in their latest win against Wisconsin, Demetri was 6-10 from the field, scoring 25 points along with seven assists. If he can avoid those bad games, Illinois can still win the conference.
Can They Be Road Warriors?
Two of Illinois’ three losses are on the road, and more than half of their remaining games are away from home, starting tonight at 18-3 Minnesota.
It was obvious to anyone watching that a major reason Illinois lost to Michigan State was because the crowd got into their heads. Illinois played sloppy as the home crowd got louder, and will have to play better in hostile territory to stay atop the conference.
Can They Handle the Pressure?
Illinois came into the season as longshots to compete for the conference title. With a game still remaining against Michigan State, they have a shot to take the crown. Coming off such a miserable season a year ago, they are the definition of a surprise team.
However, as they continue to win, the media scrutiny will build. With the Big Ten being stronger than it has been in years, the pressure could affect the Illini.
Can They Stay Focused?
A majority of the Illinois players don't really understand what it takes to win a conference like the Big Ten, because they are a young team that haven't been in this position before. After such a great start to the season, working their way into the top 25, will they start to believe their own press?
Many teams have gotten off to rip-roaring starts, only to relax and fade down the stretch. With games coming up against Penn State, Indiana, and Northwestern, the Illini might feel the urge to let up. If they do, they'll find that Northwestern and Penn State are not the doormats they used to be, and even Indiana can be a scrappy spoiler.
Illinois obviously has more talent on its roster than most preseason prognosticators believed. They have already faced off against some of the best teams in the country, holding their own against the elite.
If Bruce Weber's squad can answer all five questions in the affirmative, Illinois could find itself playing deep into the month of March.
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