CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — One way or another, the long, steep descent that has been Illinois’ basketball season will end soon.
The Illini (17-14, 6-12 Big Ten) have endured an agonizing streak — 11 losses in their last 13 games — since upsetting then-No. 5 Ohio State in early January. The losses may have already sealed the fate of their coach, Bruce Weber, who is expected to be fired when the season ends.
But Weber said Tuesday he hopes the Illini have at least one win left in them when they open the Big Ten tournament Thursday, if for no other reason than to ease their own misery.
“I don’t think people realize the toll it’s taken on our kids — their spirits, their mindset, their future,” he said.
“I would like them to have success, for their sake more than anything,” Weber added. “But you have to go earn it, you have to take it.”
If there is good news for ninth-seeded Illinois, it might be that they open against Iowa.
The Hawkeyes (16-15, 8-10) are the higher seed at No. 8 but were the last team Illinois beat, 65-54 on Feb. 26.
And if the Illini win there? They’ll get No. 1 seed Michigan State, a team that they’d likely rather not face. Of course, the Spartans — No. 8 in the AP Top 25 — are the other team that lost to Illinois over that long, awful stretch since Ohio State.
Weber recalled that his 2007-08 team — his only losing team in nine seasons at Illinois — went on a deep, unlikely run at the conference tournament. That team, which finished 16-19, won three games to get to the final before losing to Wisconsin.
“We did it in ‘08 with a group that probably wasn’t as talented a group,” he said.
Any chance of a repeat will require beating Iowa, and that will likely require stopping — or at least slowing — Matt Gatens.
The guard makes 42.9 percent of his 3-point shots and has averaged just over 23 points a game over his last five. Against Illinois, his hits included shots from several feet beyond the 3-point arc that came down and found nothing but net.
“When he shoots it,” Weber said, “you’re surprised when it hits the rim, to be honest.”
Illinois, in its win over the Hawkeyes, was happy to hold Gatens to 22. He had scored 30 and 33 in Iowa’s two previous games.
Against the Illini, Gatens faced solid defense from, at different times, four or five different Illinois players.
“Make him pass and make somebody else make a play,” Weber said.