In such a jumbled Big Ten Conference basketball race, the league lead is still within striking distance mathematically for Illinois.

CHAMPAIGN -- In such a jumbled Big Ten Conference basketball race, the league lead is still within striking distance mathematically for Illinois.

"A lot of people could say they're close to being near the top of the standings,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said Monday.

Don't look now, but the bottom end of the conference standings isn't that far of a drop for the Illini.

The Illini reached a "breaking point'' in the season, Weber said, when Illinois (15-5 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten) plays at Minnesota (15-5, 3-4) on Saturday (7 p.m., BTN). Following the road game, the Illini host Michigan State and Northwestern, then play four of the next five games on the road. Coming off losses to Penn State and Wisconsin, the Illini hit a crossroads.

"This is the breaking point of our season,'' Weber said. "You have to make strides, correct some little things, then come with a great mindset, a toughness factor that will help us get ready.

"We're not that far off. Now we have to figure out what things we can correct.''

Weber said guard D.J. Richardson is nursing a knee injury while his sprained right wrist isn't fully healed, and center Meyers Leonard sprained his ankle in the weight room Friday.

An open slot in the Big Ten schedule for the second time in a three-week span is "difficult to swallow,'' Weber said.

Except for a mandatory day off on Tuesday, the Illini get plenty of time to prepare. A year ago, the Illini ended a four-game Big Ten road losing streak at Minnesota in a "foxhole'' game, when Weber juggled the lineup to send a message. Weber may also make a note to himself: use the bench.

In the 67-63 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday, three subs logged a total of 25 minutes. When the Illini failed to secure key defensive rebounds late in the game, Weber admitted his team might have been gassed after debating with the assistants.

"I said midway through the second half, Do we need to rotate them and get a little rest?'' Weber said. "They said, Hey, we beat Ohio State and didn't sub at all.

"You always second guess. It's the easy thing to do. We didn't have the energy to get the loose balls and get the rebounds to make a difference.''

Freshmen Nnanna Egwu, Myke Henry and Ibby Djimde would benefit from more minutes.

"If we can't make more progress, those guys have to get more minutes,'' Weber said.

Illinois received votes but fell out of the top 25 this week.

BASKETBALL: According to a Chicago Sun-Times report, former Illini forward Jereme Richmond, 19, pleaded guilty to one count of aggravated unlawful use of a weapon for an August incident when a handgun found was in the back seat of a car he drove.

Richmond was also ordered to pay a $500 fine and $3,276 in court costs, perform 200 hours of community service and donate $250 to a shelter for battered and abused women.

The former Mr. Basketball in Illinois from Waukegan High School is forbidden from drinking alcohol or using drugs while on probation. He tested positive for marijuana while out on bond in October. If he violates his probation, Richmond could get 6 months in jail.

FOOTBALL: Illinois will hold a signing day party on Feb. 1 at Assembly Hall, when coach Tim Beckman will announce the Illinois recruiting class. The video board will be used to show highlights of each player.

The coaching staff will greet fans as they enter at 4:30 p.m. with the introductions of players at 5:30. The event is free and open to the public. Free parking is available in Assembly Hall lots.

WOMEN'S BASKETBALL: Despite a bad start in the Big Ten, Illinois hasn't given up the fight, coach Jolette Law said. The Illini scored the most points against a Big Ten team in her tenure in a 96-84 loss at No. 10 Ohio State Sunday. Tied with 5 minutes left, the Illini (6-14, 0-7) failed to get their first win over a ranked team in nine years.

"We have that fighter's mentality,'' Law said. "I keep trying to push them, and I’m confident our breakthrough is coming.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.