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Monday, February 27, 2012
Weber hanging onto NCAA tourney hopes

By Scott Powers

Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Monday his team could begin dreaming about the NCAA tournament again with its win over Iowa.

The Illini snapped a six-game losing streak with a 65-54 home win over Iowa on Sunday to improve to 6-10 in the Big Ten. Illinois hosts No. 13 Michigan on Thursday and travel to No. 15 Wisconsin on Sunday to close out their Big Ten regular-season schedule.

Despite Illinois' Big Ten record, its NCAA tournaments chances could vastly improve with two more quality wins. It's already defeated Gonzaga, Michigan State and Ohio State.

It's not certain whether Weber needs an NCAA bid to hang onto his job. His future with the school has fueled serious speculation during the losing streak.

"We had to get one (win) before we could even really make it part of our dreams, our hopes, our goals," Weber said of the NCAA tournament. "Now you get one, now you get two. You got a Michigan team that is really high rated. They could obviously be another marquee win for us to put on the résumé. If you get that, then you got to go to Wisconsin and play another high-ranked team and see if you can get a big road win."

What Weber saw as the difference between Sunday's win over Iowa and the team's previous six losses was the Illini's defensive effort. He had made a concerted effort to restore that by making everything the players did in practice a competition and awarding the winners with starts.

Against Iowa, Illinois' starters were Tyler Griffey, Nnanna Egwu, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams. Brandon Paul and Meyers Leonard, the team's top scorer and rebounder, came off the bench. Paul and Leonard did respond as subs and combined for 39 points.

"We started the top five guys with their record," Weber said. "You weren't mad at anybody. I guess deep down you hope you were motivating some guys who didn't compete during practice. The guys who brought us energy during the week got to play in the game. That's how it should always be.

"I said a couple weeks ago I have to change the culture, the mindset. Between that and the defensive end and effort, it's our chance. It's our only chance."