Season could hinge on next five games.
Illinois basketball and coach Bruce Weber already lost a few friends Sunday. Now it only gets tougher. After a 74-70 loss to Northwestern Sunday, Illinois (16-7 overall, 5-5 in the Big Ten) plays four of its next five games away from home, beginning with a game at Indiana (18-6, 6-6) Thursday (7 p.m., BTN). "If we can play with the intensity like we did at Minnesota, we'll have a chance in some of these games,'' Weber said Monday. It's been hard to stick with the Illini, who quickly buried upsets with depressing losses. Playing hard is one thing, but the ticket buyers also want to see execution and the bench, which appeared rather bored against Northwestern. "We have to play with emotion and spirit, and we have to win the fight,'' Weber said. "Against Michigan State, we won the fight. We didn't win the fight (against Northwestern). Some of that is the mental battle of taking them on, being ready to play. It's hard to describe. You know when it's happening. "In the huddles, I pleaded with them. 'We can win this thing. Come together. Make plays. Don't play not to lose.' We didn't have that emotional zip that we needed to get a win that we had against Michigan State. The look in the eyes wasn't the same yesterday.'' In three of these next four road games, the Illini face a team in the upper half of the Big Ten. This is where Weber and the Illini could save the season, or where it could slide out of control. A growing number of diehards already turned their back on it, after the Illini's fifth loss at home to Northwestern since Assembly Hall opened in 1963. Besides 12 minutes played by reserve point guard Sam Maniscalco, the bench's only contributions were 1 minute from Myke Henry and a few seconds from Nnanna Egwu. Henry and Egwu played well in the victory at Northwestern in January, but Weber said the freshmen struggled against the Northwestern offense in practice last week. "Hindsight, of course, use your bench, use other guys, see what happens,'' said Weber, clearly subdued after the loss that hurt Illini pride more than the RPI, where Illinois fell from 35 to 46. While the shocking defeat had Illini fans looking farther into the future than March Madness, the Illini can be found on the NCAA brackets. Illinois moved up from a 10 seed to an 8 in bracketology from ESPN Monday. ESPN specialist Joe Lunardi's bracket was heavy with the Big Ten: Ohio State was a No. 1 seed; Michigan State at 2; Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin all at 4; Purdue at 10; and Minnesota at 12. The trick for Weber and the Illini is staying in the bracket following the next five games. FOOTBALL: Former Illini punter Steve Weatherford set a Super Bowl record with three punts downed inside the 10-yard line in the 21-17 win over New England Sunday. His first punt was pinned New England at the 6, leading to a safety on the following play. "It was more like John Stockton to Karl Malone,'' Weatherford said on the Mike and Mike in the Morning. "I'm a scrappy little white guy just hooking him up. I'm just a small piece of the machine they call the New York Giants.'' Weatherford also had the last laugh. After cutting Weatherford in September, Jets special teams coach Mike Westhoff said that "there were times that (Weatherford) just didn't do the job." "I've got something that he doesn't,'' Weatherford said. "He's been doing it a whole lot longer than me. I just won a world championship. Obviously, I don't get along with that guy.'' IN OTHER NEWS: Sophomore pole vaulter Stephanie Marks set a school record for the fourth time in four meets by clearing 13 feet, 9 3/4 inches Saturday. . . Senior Paul Ruggeri earned the bronze medal on floor exercise and finished in the top four on three events at the U.S. Winter Challenge to grab a spot on the U.S. senior national gymnastics team for the fourth time in his career. Freshman C.J. Maestas was selected to the team by committee following a silver medal on rings. . . John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie.