Illinois needs to play better -- and harder -- than last weekend in a 72-57 loss to Wisconsin at Assembly Hall, when the Illini attempted to rally from 16 down after coach Bruce Weber pleaded for his Illini to "play your (butts) off.'' When fifth-seeded Illinois faces fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Illini carry a three-game losing streak and losses in five of the last six. The Badgers won four straight games after the return of forward Jon Leuer.

There's little arguing the point.


Illinois needs to play better -- and harder -- than last weekend in a 72-57 loss to Wisconsin at Assembly Hall, when the Illini attempted to rally from 16 down after coach Bruce Weber pleaded for his Illini to "play your (butts) off.''


When fifth-seeded Illinois faces fourth-seeded Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday at Conseco Fieldhouse, the Illini carry a three-game losing streak and losses in five of the last six. The Badgers won four straight games after the return of forward Jon Leuer.


A better performance wouldn't guarantee a win against Wisconsin, a team perhaps peaking at just the right time, but it would be a start. Nobody in the tournament has more to gain than the Illini.


"I hope they come out with a sense of urgency,'' Weber said. "We've been saying that for a couple weeks. This is it. You have to go to Indianapolis and play Wisconsin and lay it on the line. Last week, we tried to do a lot of different motivational stuff. It didn't work.


"We didn't play as energetic as we hoped. Now it comes down to what's inside and how much they really want it. We'll see what happens on Friday.''


The Illini called last weekend's meeting with the Badgers as Game 7 in a do-or-die attempt at improving the NCAA resume. This must be overtime.


"This is the last chance, the last straw,'' said Illini forward Mike Davis. Without a win or two, the Illini sit and wait, hoping to avoid their first appearance in the NIT since 1996 and failing to play in the NCAAs for the second time in the last three seasons.


A weak defensive team that relies upon hot shooting to gain confidence, Illinois cooled off down the stretch. The Illini failed to shoot better than 38.3 percent over the last four games, and Illinois guard Demetri McCamey didn't play like his status as a first-team all-Big Ten pick in the last three. 


McCamey put up 27 points and seven assists in the 63-56 win at Wisconsin. In the 15-point loss to the Badgers on Sunday, McCamey made three late mistakes and lost control of his emotions. With a big game in the conference tournament, all might be forgotten in a matter of days.


"It gives you a little feel of the NBA playoffs,'' Weber said. "You can make little adjustments. Some of it is you make some shots. If you do a better job on the boards, that would help. I still say we go as Demetri goes.


"He didn't get off to a great start. He never really go going, whether distributing or scoring the ball. I'm sure they made some adjustments and made a better focus on him. I didn't think he read things like he needed, like he did (the first meeting). We're good when he reads the open guy.''


Weber tried one last thing to jump-start the Illini. A rugged practice that began with 90 minutes of competitive drills sent a message Monday, what was originally scheduled as an off day. In the workout, the losing team had to run. Davis' legs were still sore Tuesday.


"It made us a little more on edge,'' Illini center Mike Tisdale said. "I think it was good for us. The last couple games, we've been there, but we haven't fought like we needed. We haven't finished. That's what (Monday) was about.''


These aren't the same Badgers who lost to Illinois in early February. Leuer, a mobile 6-foot-10, 240-pound junior, missed the first meeting with Illinois with a broken wrist but scored 20 points against the Illini five days ago. The Badgers won their last four games when Leuer averaged 15.5 points during the stretch. He also made it more difficult for Tisdale to find open perimeter shots.


"I know Bruce Weber is a great teacher and coach,'' Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said. "He's trying to get his team to play as well as they can. There are parts there, like with all teams. We're better some nights than others.


"Whether they have to beat us or how they deep they need to go (to get an NCAA bid), I would never speculate on that.''


Playing better still might not be good enough for Illinois.


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.


 


ILLINOIS VS. WISCONSIN 


No. 5 Illinois (18-13, 10-8) vs. No. 4 Wisconsin (23-7, 13-5)


1:30 p.m., Conseco Fieldhouse (18,345), Indianapolis (ESPN, Illini Sports Network)


 


ILLINOIS (18-13, 10-8)   ppg     rpg


F Mike Davis Jr. 6-19 10.3 8.8


F Bill Cole Jr. 6-9 4.6 3.3


C Mike Tisdale Jr. 7-1 11.6 6.1


G Demetri McCamey Jr. 6-3 14.9 3.2


G D.J. Richardson Fr. 6-3 10.3 2.7


 


WISCONSIN (23-7, 13-5)     ppg   rpg


F Jon Leuer Jr. 6-10 14.9 5.7


F Keaton Nankivil Jr. 6-8 8.7 4.7


G Jason Bohannon Sr. 6-2 12.0 3.7


G Trevon Hughes Sr. 6-0 15.4 4.7


G Jordan Taylor So. 6-1 10.2 3.1


 


Noteworthy: Illinois lost seven of its last nine games to the Badgers. … Three of the five previous meetings between Illinois and Wisconsin in the Big Ten Tournament were in the title game with the Badgers winning two. … Illinois leads the Big Ten with 22 conference tournament victories. Illinois advanced to the Big Ten semifinals in every year but 2006. … Wisconsin won its last three games by an average of 24.7 points per game.


Key for Illini: Get McCamey back on track. He struggled, then endured a meltdown Sunday vs. Wisconsin.


Key for Badgers: Rebound. Even if the Wisconsin didn't shoot well at Illinois, 17 offensive rebounds gave the Badgers second chances.


Key quote: "Against a good player, you have to play defense before the man catches the ball. You can't get him get it in a sweet spot where he's comfortable.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber, on defending Jon Leuer.


Prediction: Illinois 68, Wisconsin 66