Illinois notebook: Oddsmakers predict close game

John Supinie

CHAMPAIGN -- The Vegas oddsmakers predict a close finish.

The early betting line on the NCAA tournament game between No. 9 Illinois (19-13) and No. 8 UNLV (24-8) in Tulsa on Friday (8:20 p.m., TBS) sits at 1 or 1 1/2 points, depending on the sports book. Either way, it doesn't sound like good news for the Illini, who have been unable to finish off close games.

The Illini are just 2-8 in games decided by six points or less, including the 60-55 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals Friday when the Illini blew a 12-point lead in the final 8 minutes 33 seconds while watching Michigan finish on a 21-4 run.

"We're playing not to lose instead of playing to win,'' said Illini forward Mike Davis.

It's not intentional, said Illinois coach Bruce Weber, but his Illini begin watching the clock instead of finishing it off. The Illini stop moving the ball and themselves, then it turns into a race with the shot clock for point guard Demetri McCamey.

The last few minutes against Michigan left Weber "sick to my stomach,'' so he knew the Illini were also hurting. When they returned to campus from Indianapolis Saturday, the Illini went through a light workout Saturday, then returned to the practice court Sunday for a spirited workout with three points of emphasis: (1) push the basketball; (2) create more opportunities to involve McCamey in the offense rather than just creating for others; and (3) don't forget about the defense.

"It's more about us,'' Weber said. "We have to go make a play. You can't get on your heels.''

An aggressive, athletic UNLV roster will be a challenge for the Illini, and the coaching staff expected to have no less than six game tapes on the Rebels by Monday.

But Weber needed to devise a way to create space for McCamey, who didn't attempt a shot in the final 11:37 against the Wolverines. Weber suggested the Illini will tinker with their screening, perhaps use more down screens, but that takes McCamey moving and cutting hard without the ball.

"He get frustrated in ball screens when people switch or jam him,'' Weber said. "He's got to have some patience and move without the ball.''

Illinois' offense produced some of its best basketball of the season in the first 30 minutes against Michigan. Then the Illini folded, going 1-for-8 from the field while losing five turnovers down the stretch. McCamey didn't force the action and didn't get to the free-throw line, the Illini failed to take advantage of a size advantage and then effort lagged defensively.

"You can see everybody relies on me,'' McCamey said. "At the end of the day, it's going to be in my hands. I have to make the right decisions in the last 5 minutes. I have to be aggressive. That's what I did against Indiana the whole game. If I play with that intensity and lead my teammates to close out a game, that's what we have to do to be successful.''

"You have to be aggressive. I settled just passing it, knowing they were doubling me. I made the pass to find the open man instead of being aggressive and getting to the basket.''

Don't place all the blame on McCamey, Davis said.

"We stand around and get stagnant, watch Demetri dribble,'' Davis said. "He calls a ball screen. Teams scout us. They switch the screens. We can't have Demetri just dribbling around trying to make plays. We have to help him make plays.''

FOOTBALL: When spring practice begins on March 29, the Illini better set the alarm clock. Workouts have been moved to the morning, starting at 7 a.m. and finishing at 9.30.

The Illini did it because of class conflicts in the spring, said team spokesman Kent Brown.

"It mainly has to do with class schedules,'' Brown said. "We were always working around players' schedules at both ends. Some players had to arrive late, and others had to leave early because of the limited number of classes for certain majors. The only time they could find where it cleared everybody was in the morning.''

Coach Ron Zook talked with several coaches who practice in the morning and heard positive reviews. The Illini will still hold weekend scrimmages later in the morning. The spring practice season concludes with the spring game in Memorial Stadium on April 23 (1 p.m.). Weekend scrimmages begin at 2 p.m. on April 2, 10 a.m. on April 9 and 9:45 a.m. on April 16.

If all goes well, the Illini may practice this fall in the morning.

"This is a test run for it,'' Brown said. "It's a good chance it will happen.''

Following the scrimmage on April 9, family fun fest starts at 12:45 p.m. in an event that allows interaction between fans, players and coaches on the Memorial Stadium turf.

TRACK: Illini junior Andrew Riley won the second NCAA title of his career by clocking a personal best of 7.58 in the 60-meter hurdles at the NCAA indoor championships in College Station, Texas. His time was the fastest in the NCAA this season and broke his school record.

A native of Kingston, Jamaica, Riley also won the 110 hurdles at the NCAA outdoor championships last spring. He became the first Illini to win an indoor title since Marko Koers won the 800 in 1993 and became the third Illini to win indoor and outdoor titles by joining Koers and long jumper Charlton Ehizuelen.

Illini freshman pole vaulter Matt Bane, of Rochester, was unable to qualify for the NCAA meet. His best effort of 17 feet 3 3/4 inches placed him 23 nationally indoors, and only the top 17 advanced to the NCAA meet with the lowest mark of 17-6 1/2.

IN OTHER NEWS: When Illinois begins action at the NCAA wrestling meet Thursday, senior 141-pounder Jimmy Kennedy is seeded fourth and sophomore 133-pounder B.J. Futrell is seeded seventh. The Illini also advanced three other wrestlers to the national meet. ...

Illinois baseball lost five of its last six games. The Illini (4-8) play Northern Illinois in Marion Thursday before playing Northern Illinois, Saint Louis and Southern Illinois in Carbondale this weekend. ... Illniois softball (9-9) plays at Illinois State on Tuesday after losing its last four games.

John Supinie can be reached at