Believe it or not, it's been a challenge for Illinois junior center Mike Tisdale to walk tall. You know. The confident glide. Head up. Shoulders back on that 7-foot-1 frame. A former Class A all-state player from Riverton High School with a sometimes fragile psyche, Tisdale has fought to overcome his small-town roots and perhaps low self-esteem over his height.

Believe it or not, it's been a challenge for Illinois junior center Mike Tisdale to walk tall.

You know. The confident glide. Head up. Shoulders back on that 7-foot-1 frame. A former Class A all-state player from Riverton High School with a sometimes fragile psyche, Tisdale has fought to overcome his small-town roots and perhaps low self-esteem over his height.

"When you're tall like that, you're not sure of yourself and you stand out,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "He's kind of a gangly kid. Maybe he got teased a little bit. Basketball has been a vehicle for him to start building some confidence.''

When Illinois rallied from a 23-point deficit for a win at Clemson, Tisdale finished off the largest come-from-behind win in school history. He scored six of Illinois' final eight points, including the basket that put Illinois ahead for good. Then he blocked a shot on the following Clemson possession for an exclamation point.

So much for a slow start for Tisdale, who heard it from his coach a little more than a week into the season. Now Tisdale is a budding team leader on a roster searching for a captain. After that remarkable rally, Tisdale and the Illini host Boise State on Saturday.

"The big question now is where do we go,'' Weber said. "That's what I asked them. Maybe we made up one of our losses in Vegas. We need to continue to improve leadership, consistency, execution and determination.''

Tisdale had 12 points, eight rebounds and four blocks – the kind of numbers that would have his teammates talking about the NBA. With Tisdale, it's a chance to walk tall. All of his points came in the second half, and Tisdale also tallied 11 on the Matto hustle chart to reach double figures for the first time, Weber said.

"He played with confidence, he played stronger,'' Weber said. "He's making progress.''

Tisdale struggled to handle Weber's criticism in his first two years, but he's growing up and now getting more vocal in his third season. Like his junior classmates, Tisdale is growing into a leader on a very young team.

"As it goes, he's doing better,'' Weber said. "It's one of the things we talked about with all the older guys. Making the next play. Dealing with things when they don't go well. They didn't go well in Vegas. We didn't deal with it very well. They didn't go well in Clemson. We dealt with it.''

Tidsale's been dealing with it since he arrived. While Weber was surprised how well Tisdale made the transition from small-town Riverton to Big State U., Tisdale still heard the friendly razzing from his teammates. He's a typical small-town kid who likes to hunt and fish – ESPN caught wind of Tisdale's tale about catching 300 pounds of catfish and spreading it across the family driveway.

Yet Tisdale is one of the few players with rural roots playing in major-college basketball, and that was a major step to overcome.

"Coming from such a small town and not playing against the best when I was young, I worried about competing with these guys,'' Tisdale said. "Now I've been to USA Basketball, played in the Big Ten and competed. I just have to focus on helping my teammates and helping the team.

"I was always worried about the little things that I do, and my confidence would get down. I would hang my head. If I worry about everyone else, I don't focus on myself and I can let the game come to me.''

Besides strengthening his mind, Tisdale is trying to be more aggressive. He surprised his teammates and pleased Weber with a tip dunk in an exhibition game, and the coaching staff has begged Tisdale to be more aggressive. Yet Tisdale has been more active by moving and hitting the open jumper on the perimeter.

Tisdale has scored in double figures in each of the last four games while averaging 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds during the span. He shot 61.1 percent from the field during the four games. He’s fourth in the Big Ten in field goal shooting (62 percent), fifth in free throw shooting (88.2) and fourth in blocked shots (1.9 per game).

Guard Demetri McCamey likes to tell Tisdale about how if Tisdale wasn't playing hoops, "he'd be working in a gas station back home,'' McCamey said.

Tisdale laughs. He doesn't care about the jokes. He's starting to walk tall.

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

Illinois (5-2) at Boise State (4-2)
6:30 p.m., Assembly Hall (16,618), Champaign (BTN, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (5-2)   ppg     rpg
F Mike Davis Jr. 6-9 13.3 9.9
C Mike Tisdale Jr. 7-1 11.0 5.7
G D.J. Richardson Fr. 6-3 10.1 2.0
G Brandon Paul Fr. 6-4 12.6 3.0
G Demetri McCamey Jr. 6-3 11.1 3.7
BOISE STATE (4-2)     ppg   rpg
F Robert Arnold Jr. 6-6 12.4 3.6
F Ike Okoye Sr. 6-9 13.5 9.5
C Kurt Cunningham Sr. 6-9 11.3 4.7
G Westly Perryman Jr. 6-3 4.2 1.5
G La'Shard Anderson Jr. 6-1 13.3 4.0
Noteworthy: This is the first meeting between the two teams. . . The Illini host football and basketball games on the same day for just the second time in school history. The first occurred Nov. 22, 2003, when the Illini ended the football season with a 37-20 loss to Northwestern before coach Bruce Weber began his Illini career with a 94-66 victory over Western Illinois. . . McCamey ranks second in the Big Ten in assists (6.1 apg), Mike Davis is second in rebounding (9.9 rpg) and D.J. Richardson is second in 3-point shooting (.565). . . Boise State is 0-3 all-time against Big Ten teams. . .
Key for Illini: Don't let the big rally at Clemson go to their heads. Play hard and make things happen.
Key for Broncos: Use their athleticism to create scoring opportunities.
Key quote: "When you play with that will to win or sense of urgency, maybe balls bounce your way and the calls go your way. Things happen if you have that determination.'' – Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Prediction: Illinois 78, Boise State 64