CHAMPAIGN - When Bruce Weber calls this next stretch of games, "the breaking point," it might sound like he's referring to his University of Illinois basketball team's chances for a successful season.

But the Illini coach said Thursday he is not just talking about the Illini. He's talking about the importance of the next couple weeks for every Big Ten Conference team that is trying to remain in the thick of a highly competitive, very congested race.

"It's for everybody, the whole league," Weber said. "You're about mid-way here and you have all of these teams jumbled up in the middle. Can you make a spurt and jump into that top part of the pack? Or do you stay in the middle or go backward?"

Entering play Thursday, the Big Ten standings showed a three-way tie for the lead with Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan bunched at

6-2. Wisconsin was at 5-3 while Weber's Illini were in fifth place at 4-3. Indiana and Purdue were right behind at 4-4.

And Saturday night's opponent, Minnesota, is 3-5.

"I know (Minnesota coach Tubby Smith) likes this team," Weber said. "They are like a lot of people in the league. We're all kind of hanging in the middle. Anyone who can find a way to get a win against a team hanging with you always has an advantage."

Weber said the Big Ten doesn't have the market cornered on tight league races.

"It's not only our conference," Weber said. "I was looking at the other leagues. The Atlantic 10 is all jumbled. The Missouri Valley, there's a couple at the top and then a jumble. It's kind of a mess in a lot of leagues."

Going into play on Thursday, the Atlantic 10 actually had 11 teams with either two or three losses. That includes a five-way tie for first place with the leaders stacked at 4-2.

In the Missouri Valley, Creighton and Wichita State shared the lead at 9-1 but four teams (including Illinois State) were tied for third at 5-5 beginning play on Thursday and two more (including Southern Illinois) are at 4-6.

"It will be interesting to see how it all unfolds in the next couple weeks," Weber said.

On the mend

Weber said hobbled point guard Sam Maniscalco had, "two of his better practices of the year on Monday and Wednesday," as he continues to fight through pain associated with a surgically repaired ankle.

Weber also said center Meyers Leonard seemed to be OK after twisting his ankle and showing some ill-effects on Monday.

"A lot of guys are boogered up right now and it's probably that way around the country," he said. "I went into the locker room after the game with Wisconsin and there were more ice bags than I could imagine."

Tough timing

Just wondering, but are there any Rutgers football recruits who Illini coach Tim Beckman might suddenly find on the market after Thursday's surprise news that head coach Greg Schiano is leaving the Scarlet Knights to become head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers? Schiano's departure from Rutgers comes six days before the NCAA's signing date and some prospects who assumed they would be playing for Schiano will now reconsider.

Zook sitting out

Despite reports to the contrary, former Illini football coach Ron Zook is not the new special teams coordinator with the Jacksonville Jaguars of the NFL.

Zook did interview for the job, in part because of his relationship with Jaguars' head coach Mike Mularkey, who was on the same Pittsburgh Steelers' staff as Zook from 1996 to 1998. But Zook said he was never offered the job and decided that sitting out the 2012 season might be a good idea after a 10-year stretch at Florida and Illinois that he called "brutal."

The Jaguars are now owned by Shahid Kahn, an Urbana businessman who has been a generous supporter of University of Illinois athletics.

Zook will be a part of CBS Sports Network's coverage of National Letter of Intent signing day on Wednesday. The network plans eight hours of coverage that will include analysis by Zook and former UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel.

Ironically, Zook and Neuheisel were each fired after this season and their teams met in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 31. Illinois won the game as interim head coaches led the way for each squad.|421-7983

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