All those late-season struggles are behind Mike Davis and Illinois. The NCAA tournament is all that matters now.
Davis tied his season high with 22 points, Demetri McCamey added 17 points and seven assists and Illinois dominated UNLV 73-62 Friday night to set up another meeting between Fighting Illini coaches past and present in the Southwest region of the NCAA tournament.
The ninth-seeded Illini (20-13) took control with an early 15-0 run and led by as many as 25 in a surprisingly easy rout, after losing 10 of their previous 16 games to bring into question whether they'd even make it into the 68-team bracket.
"We always talk about it. It's not what you do at the beginning of the year. ... ... It's about what you do now," McCamey said. "Everybody will forget about what you did at the beginning of the season or the Big Ten season if you go out and win in March."
Bruce Weber's squad led by double digits throughout the second half against eighth-seeded UNLV (24-9), with former Illini coach Lon Kruger in charge. Next up for Illinois is a Sunday night clash against No. 1 seed Kansas and Weber's predecessor, Bill Self.
"It's been such a long time. Both Lon and Bill did tremendous job at Illinois. I respect them. Everywhere they've been they've been very good coaches, there's no doubt," Weber said. "At Illinois, they helped the program.
"I'm just worried about Kansas. That's what I'm really worried about, their players and seeing if we can match up with them."
Illinois moved to 15-0 this season when McCamey has at least seven assists. The Illini played without freshman reserve Jereme Richmond, who was suspended for violating unspecified team rules. Weber said he hadn't decided whether Richmond will play Sunday.
Oscar Bellfield scored 14 to lead the Runnin' Rebels, who had lost just three of their previous 13 games — all against BYU and San Diego State, the Mountain West's pair of top-10 powers.
"It's disappointing for the guys because they played really well in the last month especially, and doing the things they needed to do to create the opportunity to be here," said Kruger, going against Illinois for the first time in his 25 years as a college coach.
"To play like that in the first half, everyone was disappointed for sure."
Illinois was ranked as high as No. 12 at midseason but faded with a series of late-game failures. That wasn't an issue this time.
The Illini were on from the start, handling UNLV's in-your-face defense with ease and building a 23-point lead while shooting 63 percent in the first half. The Runnin' Rebels went scoreless for a span of nearly seven minutes in the first half.
McCamey ran the show, setting up his teammates early and then getting to the basket himself. He started the Illini's big run with back-to-back layups and finished it off with a 3-pointer from the left wing that made it 29-12 with 6:51 left before halftime.
Mike Tisdale answered UNLV's next basket — Anthony Marshall's driving layup that resulted in a three-point play — with a highlight-reel throwdown of Brandon Paul's alley-oop and Illinois kept rolling.
McCamey provided the finishing touches with another 3-pointer that dropped in at the halftime buzzer, putting Illinois up 46-24, and then leaped into a teammate before heading to the locker room.
It was the second time in the last three games the Illini were so dominant in the first half. They also rushed out to a 46-21 halftime lead against Indiana on senior day in Champaign. But in between, they squandered a 12-point lead in the final 8½ minutes against Michigan at the Big Ten tournament to provide a fresh reminder of a season-long quandary heading into the NCAAs.
"I thought they played with a bounce to their step. When that happens and one team gets an upper hand like that, the other team's on it's heels," Kruger said. "It's not like our guys wanted to play with less energy, but Illinois won all of those energy battles. That kind of snowballed on us."
UNLV got within 61-45 on Stanback's jumper with 8 minutes left, but D.J. Richardson hit back-to-back 3-pointers and then a layup to bump the lead back to 22 by the 5-minute mark.
A Rebels rally that came way too late made the score look deceivingly close in Illinois' first NCAA tournament win in five years.
"It meant something to our kids, to our seniors, and I'm hoping now they can want more," Weber said. "I told them before the game it's their expectations that matter. How do they approach the game? How do they approach the tournament? What's their desire? It's the same attitude we've got to have on Sunday. We've got a tougher opponent, obviously."
The next task is to make it out of the opening weekend for the first time since losing to North Carolina in the 2005 national championship game. And it won't be an easy one against the Jayhawks, who have lost twice all season and will be trying to exorcise the demons of a second-round loss against Northern Iowa last year.
"It's going to take a special effort," Weber said, "but it's possible on Sunday."