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Illini hope to turn it around in Big Ten tournament

Illinois' Meyers Leonard (12) tries pass around Nebraska's BrandRichards(3) BrandUbel (13) during their NCAA college basketball game Saturday Feb. 18

Illinois' Meyers Leonard (12) tries to pass around Nebraska's Brandon Richardson (3) and Brandon Ubel (13) during their NCAA college basketball game, Saturday, Feb. 18, 2012, in Lincoln, Neb. Nebraska won 80-57. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver)

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Updated: March 7, 2012 4:52PM

In the gloom of Illinois’ 11th loss in 13 games at Wisconsin on Sunday, Meyers Leonard kept saying it.

``We’re just missing that one little thing,’’ the 7-1 sophomore said. ``I don’t know what it is. If we can just find that one thing we’re missing, there’s still a chance. We can turn this into a magical season. But it’s coming down to our last chance.’’

That chance comes at 10:30 a.m. on Thursday, when the ninth-seeded Illini take on No. 8 Iowa in the first game of the Big Ten tournament.

Magical and Illini are words that have not intersected often this season. Unless it cuts down the nets here on Sunday, Illinois seems destined to miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in five seasons.

New athletic director Mike Thomas, who already has fired football coach Ron Zook and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law, is expected to complete the hat trick by asking Bruce Weber to turn in his clipboard. Thomas declined to say whether he’ll ``evaluate’’ Weber after this tournament or the NIT, Illinois’ likely destination.

On the other hand, it’s not as if Illinois hasn’t hunkered down at the Big Ten tournament before. The Illini have won 23 games in this event, six more than runner-up Ohio State. And many of those wins have come out of nowhere.

As a No. 11 seed in 1999, the Illini went all the way to the championship game. They did that again as a No. 10 seed in 2008.

Lon Kruger and his staff didn’t pack four days worth of suits in ’99, resulting in what some jokingly described later as a gamy aroma on the bench by Sunday.

That wouldn’t be an issue for the seriously determined Weber.

The question is whether his players, who have taken an emotional beating while winning only twice since Jan. 10 after a 15-3 start, will be packing a will to win.

``With all this stuff going on, it’s hard on us mentally, physically, emotionally,’’ Brandon Paul said. “It’s tough. But we’re men. We have to fight through it. Everybody’s 0-0 in the tournament. If we make a run, who knows what could happen?’’

They wouldn’t have to do anything unprecedented to get to the semi-finals on Saturday. Illinois is 2-0 against Iowa and Michigan State, its first two opponents.

When Leonard and Paul are on their games, they’re a dynamic duo. Leonard led the Big Ten in blocked shots (58) and was third in rebounding (8.3) and 16th in scoring (13.4). Paul was third in scoring (17.7) in conference play, including 43 vs. Ohio State, the most by a Big Ten player since 1994.

And the guys around them are more than serviceable, especially when D.J. Richardson’s shooting eye and Sam Maniscalco’s gimpy ankle are right.

The question is, what’s left in the tank?

``When adversity hits,’’ Weber said, ``we don’t have that spirit, that gumption, that leader, that gets them over the top.’’

It’s not easy to change that now. But if the Illini can put aside all the pressure that’s been building, they have enough talent.

``In March Madness, everyone can start over,’’ Weber said. ``You see it around the country. There’s always a surprise team. They’re good kids and they deserve to have better. But they have to go earn it. This is about pride, about passion for the game. They have to reach deep inside.’’

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