The Big Ten Conference race looks like it could go down to the last weekend before it's decided. That's not hard to understand with five teams battling for the title. So Illinois junior guard Demetri McCamey should be excused if his desire for some jewelry is a motivation in February.

The Big Ten Conference race looks like it could go down to the last weekend before it's decided.


That's not hard to understand with five teams battling for the title. So Illinois junior guard Demetri McCamey should be excused if his desire for some jewelry is a motivation in February.


He's thinking  "a little bit'' about clawing back to an NCAA Tournament bid after the Illini fell off the bracketology sheets in January, but McCamey also thinks bigger – the Illini's first conference title since 2005.


“We're right there,'' he said. "We smell a ring.''


Ranked as high as No. 20 in November, Illinois looked to be falling apart after a three-game Big Ten losing streak capped with a loss to Northwest. Now, after back-to-back wins against ranked opponents and a five-game winning streak overall, the Illini are thinking big again.


OK. So it's there for anyone to see. Illinois is tied for first place in the Big Ten standings following the unlikely 63-56 victory over No. 11 Wisconsin Tuesday at the Kohl Center, where the Badgers previously had lost 10 games in coach Bo Ryan's nine seasons and five in Big Ten play. But Illinois ended the Badgers' 18-game homecourt winning streak and 51-game streak at home against unranked Big Ten teams.


"Now we've got ourselves as a little bit of a contender,'' said coach Bruce Weber, perhaps not convinced himself – or not ready to mention it to the Illini.


Even if talk of a conference title is still a little over the top for anyone not chugging the orange Kool-Aid, the Illini looked more like an NCAA Tournament team after back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and then-No. 5 Michigan State. Illinois (17-8 overall, 9-3 in the Big Ten) hosts No. 13 Ohio State Sunday (noon, CBS).


Wins over the Badgers and Spartans might help keep the Illini loose, rather than crunching the numbers. Even though the win over Michigan State Saturday came with Spartans star Kalin Lucas sidelined because of a sprained ankle, Illinois backed it up against Wisconsin.


"As far as the NCAA Tournament, this is bigger than Michigan State,'' Illinois forward Bill Cole said after the Illini rallied from an early 11-point deficit against Wisconsin.


"You beat Michigan State and lose this one, it's almost like a wash. Now we play another top-15 team Sunday in Ohio State. If we win all three of those, we're looking like a much improved team.


"You can show the tournament committee that. Michigan State. Wisconsin at Wisconsin. Hopefully Ohio State. They would say, that's a pretty good team at Illinois.''


Earlier Wednesday, Illinois already moved up in the computer rankings to No. 59 in RPI, No. 50 in Sagarin ratings and No. 47 in Ken Pomeroy's ratings. Those bracketology projections later this week should be interesting after ESPN had the Illini as a No. 11 seed and SI put Illinois as a No. 9 on Monday.


Thanks a season-high five-game winning streak, the Illini are thinking big.


"We play so much more fluid and loose, especially with the way Demetri is playing,'' Cole said. "This might be the mentality that we can compete with anyone right now. We're in the race for the Big Ten right now. We have it in our minds that anything could happen. We're looking forward to a special ending.''


John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.