Giving fans reasons to hope ... and despair

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Three Illinois band members were discussing the Illini's chances for the NCAA tournament as they walked the exterior perimeter of Assembly Hall before Sunday's game with Wisconsin.

The one on the left talked about the team's recent losses to Ohio State and Purdue and felt the team hadn't played well enough in the past few weeks to reach the NCAA tournament. The one in the middle seemed to agree. Finally, as they approached the door, the third, the one on the right, chimed in with, "Illinois only seems to win when I'm watching. If I don't watch, they lose." The two others didn't say anything.

The Illini lost on Sunday, and the third band member watched, but that's not the point. Just like that third band member, a lot of people seem to have their ideas of why, at times, Illinois has looked unstoppable this season and why, at other times, it's been woeful.

What's reality and what's fiction isn't easy to distinguish. Yes, if you sit a certain way in your seat or wear a certain shirt assumed to be lucky, it probably won't change how Illinois plays on a given day. But at the same time, Illinois coach Bruce Weber is paid a lot to figure these sorts of things out, and he still doesn't have any precise answers after 31 games.

As Weber would say after the loss, "The whole week we talked about preparation and will, tried to pull out every motivational thing we had in our bag of tricks, and we didn't play the way we had to."

Most college coaches of potential NCAA tournament teams don't have to resort to a bag of tricks come March. What especially was surprising is Weber was trying to find motivation for a team that knew very well what was at stake on Sunday.

If the Illini won, they were likely going to be dancing in two weeks. If they lost, their season would rest on winning at least a few games in the Big Ten tournament to have a chance. With that on the table, Illinois should have had more than enough drive against the Badgers.

But come Sunday -- even as Illinois' players wore T-shirts before the game that read "Illinois Mission Carpe Diem" -- the Illini were outworked by Wisconsin on their home floor. Wisconsin's players chased down more loose balls than Illinois. They grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, 10 of those coming from two guards, and outrebounded Illinois 40-30 overall.

"You shouldn't have to ask them to have energy," Weber said. "That's probably one of the problems, I think. To be honest, that's got to come [from] within. It's the little extra hustle plays, it's jumping after the ball, going after the long rebound."

Weber and his staff do break down tape after every win and after every loss searching for explanations behind their goods and their bads. They'll put a positive performance by Mike Davis under a microscope, compare it to a bad one and try to duplicate what he did positive in the next game.

It's the same procedure for nearly every Illinois player this season, as most have been consistently inconsistent. Breaking down the numbers, D.J. Richardson and Mike Tisdale appear to be Illinois' most consistent players. They've been the two who most often have finished a game with numbers near their season averages. They have had some highs and lows, but they're not as erratic as most. What Illinois is going to get out of everyone else has felt like a crapshoot throughout the season.

The problem with the Illini is they have given their faithful a reason for hope this season. It's like cheering for the Chicago Cubs. Cubs fans will tell you it seemed easier when they expected them to lose all the time. Now that they do win more, it's harder to take when they lose.

Illinois fans have seen Demetri McCamey look like an All-American, while Davis has devoured every rebound in stretches and Tisdale's hook has been a thing of beauty. Also, it has been hard to believe during some games that Brandon Paul and Richardson are just freshmen.

It's because of those successes that there's a feeling the Illini can turn it on any moment. The theory is simple: They've done it, so why can't they do it again?

Weber was certainly clinging to that belief after Sunday's loss when he thought of his team's chances of knocking off this same Wisconsin team on Friday in the Big Ten tournament.

"I think we're capable," Weber said. "I think we've showed we're capable. Now we got to do it on the court."

Some still do believe Illinois has a shot at the NCAA tournament, even if it loses to Wisconsin on Friday. ESPN analyst Steve Lavin expressed that belief before rushing to O'Hare Airport for an evening flight out of Chicago after calling Sunday's game.

"I do think they're in," Lavin said. "They have four quality wins against Clemson, Ohio State, at Wisconsin and Vanderbilt. That Vanderbilt win might be the biggest with the way it's played this season. Its schedule has also been lopsided where it has played the top teams late in the year. That's why the NCAA tournament has gotten away from looking at your last eight to 10 games over the last 10 to 15 years with conference schedules being so different. I also think they pass the eye test."

Weber didn't have the optimism. He didn't have to take time to ponder the same question.

"We got to win," Weber said. "That's what it comes down to. You got to hope there's not a bunch of upsets [this week in conference tournaments]. It might take a couple wins in Indianapolis to give us a shot.

"Sooner or later, this is coming to an end. They got one last chance to make the season a positive one. But we got to play smarter, we got to give better effort on both ends of the court if we're going to have a chance to win it."

What will it take for that happen?

It depends on who you talk to, of course. Weber has a few ideas, but that third band member does, too.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.