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Senator Obama gave his supporters an infusion of hope last week with a huge victory in the Iowa caucuses. But Senator Clinton rebounded this week, bucking the national media and pre-primary polls that all but handed Obama a second victory in New Hampshire. The former first lady rallied and instead claimed the W in New England, proving that this will indeed be a fight to Super Tuesday.

Fans of the Illini men’s basketball team should be excused if the Democratic or Republican presidential races have become more interesting than the Big Ten race (which is all of three games old). If one wants to root for a winner in the state of Illinois this year, the smart money is on the presidential race — not the University of Illinois men’s basketball team, losers of four straight for the first time under Bruce Weber (pictured).

The handful of Illini faithful who haven’t turned grumpy and cynical by this point in the season can choose to ignore the polarizing online debate over Coach Weber. The men’s coach is either running this program into the ground with his verbal attacks on his own players in the press, his inflexible in-game strategies, his allegiance to certain veteran players and his recruiting failures that got us in the mess we’re in now; or he’s an honest, genuine sonofagun who can coach ’em up and has changed the recruiting ebb with can’t-miss classes in 2009 and 2010. Framing this debate is a tough-luck kid from Baltimore who has become the talk of the town — and not for his sterling impersonation of No. 11.

A CHANGE WE CAN BELIEVE IN

That kid is Chester Frazier, who since being offered a scholarship by Weber and stepping on campus in the fall of 2005 has started 43 games, including all 16 this year except for last night’s game against Wisconsin. (Frazier logged his usual 30 minutes, but came off the bench due to a rib cage injury.) Plenty of Illinois fans — I’d wager to say we’ve reached a healthy majority — are ready to see a little less of Frazier, who has regressed mightily this season. His minutes are slightly up from last year, but his production has gone south. His field goal percentage is down by four points, while his three-point shooting has plummeted from a poor 32.1% last season to a horrible 24.5% this season. Unfortunately, he’s still launching the same number of three-pointers per game as last season. In a nutshell, he’s gone from an offensive liability as a sophomore to a black hole as a junior, a fact that every Illini opponent is well briefed on.

On Sunday, following Illinois’ fourth home loss in five Assembly Hall games, Weber finally came to terms with the fact that something needs to change. And he’s got the right idea. Or, maybe, his assistants do. Following Illinois’ loss to Penn State, Weber told the media his coaching staff threatened to not show up to the team’s next game if guard Demetri McCamey wasn’t inserted into the lineup.

In case you didn’t blow $20 at a bar that has the Big Ten Network in order to watch the Illini get out-rebounded 45–22 by a smaller Penn State team, I’ll fill you in on why McCamey is the hot topic. The freshman singlehandedly led Illinois on a second-half charge that came up just short. Without McCamey’s aggressive play on offense and ability to make and create shots, Illinois probably would have lost by close to double digits.

So, McCamey received the starting nod against Wisconsin — and was promptly pulled four-and-a-half minutes into the game after a turnover as the offense once again stalled. Who came in for him? Frazier, rib injury and all. Chet the Jet has more guts and desire than the rest of his team combined, but he’s unfortunately lacking in the talent department and too inconsistent on the court. His gritty performance against Wisconsin — seven assists to one turnover — will be the talk of the tabloids, but McCamey also turned in a respectable showing in his debut as a starter with nine points on 3-of-8 shooting, seven boards, four assists and four turnovers.

Maybe this is when I should find some audacity and hope that Weber will ignore the emotional arguments to the contrary and hand Frazier’s surplus minutes to his freshman understudy. Coach needs to play his best scoring lineup, whether it be youthful or not, because his best defensive lineup isn’t winning games. It’s time to allow a new rotation of players to take its lumps and learn. I believe there’s a working consensus behind me when I say that would be a change Illini Nation can believe in.

YES WE CAN!
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Illinois fans looking for a winning team should turn to the Illini women’s basketball team, who are off to a respectable start under new coach Jolette Law (pictured) as they attempt to gain a berth to the NCAA tourney. At 3–2 in the weaker Big Ten following an impressive home win against Minnesota on Thursday, the 11–5 women’s team is still looking for that statement victory this season. They’ll have the opportunity to grab one in Big Ten play with a home game against Ohio State, currently the conference’s lone ranked team, at the end of January. If Illinois can pick up home wins against Penn State and Michigan State, and finish Big Ten play in the top one-third of the conference, then they’ll be a legitimate bubble team come March. It won’t be easy for the women, but it probably will be far more pleasurable to watch than another two months of the men.

FIRED UP, READY TO GO!

How bad is the supposedly better Eastern Conference in the NBA? The Bulls, at 13–20, are only three games back of Cleveland for the final playoff slot. Interim coach Jim Boylan has his men executing much better on the offensive end, to the tune of better than 103 points per game. But they still haven’t beaten a good team (overtime losses to Orlando and Portland), and the Bulls regressed mightily in a home loss to the lousy Knicks on Tuesday. Still, under Boylan’s guidance Chicago is a fightin’ 4–3. Joe Smith has awoken in the absence of Luol Deng. Ben Gordon is playing much better coming off the bench. And I get the feeling that maybe, just maybe, they aren’t toast yet.