Pressure to stay perfect yet to affect 28-0 Illinois

`We try to keep it loose,' Weber says of No. 1 team

College Basketball

February 25, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

How difficult is it go unbeaten in college basketball?

Besides Illinois, Davidson and Pacific are the only other teams in the nation that are perfect in conference play, let alone overall. The Fighting Illini have been scrutinized since they moved atop the polls the first week in December, but if pressure is mounting on Bruce Weber's team, it isn't evident.

After Illinois tore through some Big Ten fodder last week, Weber described the morning's shoot-around at Penn State, which included Dee Brown hitting a shot while sitting courtside.

"Guys were shooting from half court, up in the stands, not much stress there," Weber said. "You might think it's a loony bin, but we try to keep it loose. It's not life and death. We tell our guys to do what you do best, and it helps that they enjoy each other. I'm not saying we take it for granted, but it's something that hasn't affected them."

The 1972 Miami Dolphins, the NFL's last perfect team, pop champagne every year when there are no unbeatens left in pro football, and references to Indiana and 1976 are mandatory in Champaign, Ill. The Hoosiers of Bob Knight were major college basketball's last unbeaten.

UNLV, in 1990-91, wasn't stopped until the NCAA semifinals, when it lost to Duke. Saint Joseph's went unbeaten in the 2003-04 regular season but lost in its conference tournament. Weber is bombarded with advice about the advisability of losing in the Big Ten tournament, lest the pressure in the NCAAs become unbearable.

"I get calls, `You should lose, but don't lose to this team, or that team.' Others say, `There is no good in any loss,' " Weber said. "One of my Southern Illinois teams was 17-0 in the league, then we lost a game, lost in the league tournament and lost in the NCAA. That's three out of four. I don't want to start anything like that."

Illinois has time to ponder its future, as it has a quirky eight-day break before a Thursday date against Purdue, where Weber will face his mentor, Gene Keady.

The Fighting Illini beat Wake Forest by 18 in December and improved to 28-0 with Wednesday's 36-point rout of Northwestern. Despite being behind for only 92 minutes all season, Illinois is battle-tested. North Carolina and Louisville enjoy a greater scoring margin in the NCAA statistics, as the Fighting Illini had to grind out wins at Wisconsin and Michigan State, two of the nation's toughest home courts.

"Nobody is going to storm the court on us," Brown said of the recent stretch that has saddled league leaders from Boston College to Utah with losses.

While other NCAA contenders can't even get a streak going in this age of parity, Illinois remains on a roll.

"Streaks aren't important," said Weber, whose team could face no more than a three-hour bus ride in the postseason. "Winning the Big Ten, getting a good [NCAA] seed and playing close to home, advancing in March into April is what's important.

"We want to keep this magical, special feeling going. I don't have to make sure they're having fun. Coaches can make players uptight, but I trust them to click it into another gear."

Weber's eight-man rotation includes four seniors, three juniors and a sophomore, who haven't gotten rattled yet.

"Praise the Lord," said forward Roger Powell, a Penecostal minister. "The whole team feels blessed."

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