Unranked Illini prepare for Big Ten final exam Print
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Tuesday, 10 March 2009 22:24
NCAAB Headline News

 CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -While wins usually equal momentum, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has no choice but to hope his unranked Illini can make lemonade out of the two games they lost to close the regular season.
Weber says the Illini - the No. 2 seed in the Big Ten tournament - have to be ready for anything when they take the court against either Michigan or Iowa on Friday.
``I think it's like preparing for a final exam where it's going to be on the whole semester,'' Weber said. ``You don't know who you're going to play. ... You have to kind of prepare for everything.''
The Illini (23-8, 11-7 Big Ten) beat the Hawkeyes twice this season and were 1-1 against Michigan. But Illinois hasn't seen either team in a long time - Feb. 1 in Iowa's case and a Jan. 14 win against a Wolverines team that was still ranked in the Top 25.
That's ancient history.
More relevant to Illinois' fortunes are the two losses that ended the regular season - 74-66 against then-No. 17 Michigan State and 64-63 at upstart Penn State.
The latter gave the Nittany Lions - regulars at or near the bottom of the Big Ten - a regular season sweep over Illinois and pushed the Illini out of the Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since late January.
The Nittany Lions finished 21-10 and tied for fourth in the Big Ten at 10-8, giving them a good shot at an NCAA bid.
With that in mind, Weber insisted Tuesday that the one-point loss was something to build on.
``I thought we played good basketball,'' he said. ``It was very positive the whole game - we just didn't finish it.''
Illinois' losses to Penn State illustrate the parity in the Big Ten.
The Illini were ranked and Penn State unranked both times they faced each other. Both games were close and hard fought. And neither loss was more than a mild shock.
The coach of the only team that stands out above the rest, No. 9 Michigan State, says that almost every team in the conference has a shot at making a run in the conference tournament.
``I think it's as wide open as it's ever been,'' Tom Izzo said this week. ``Legitimately, there are a ton of teams that have a chance to win it.''
And many, as Weber pointed out Tuesday, are playing for a place in the NCAAs and their postseason lives.
That's one thing Illinois almost certainly has locked up.
Weber thinks his team right now would be a fifth or sixth seed at the NCAAs, but could fall a little further with a poor showing in the Big Ten tournament.
But he says he wants his team to shoot for something more than momentum and pull off ``something special'' in Indianapolis.
If the Illini win their opener, they'll play either Purdue, Penn State or Indiana for a place in Sunday's title game.
In a season when the Illini have exceeded all expectations - they were 16-19 last year - Weber thinks Illinois has a chance to play on Sunday.
``Since the beginning of the year everybody has said, well, next year, next year,'' he said Tuesday. ``I said the heck with that.''

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