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February 20, 2012

No pity parties for reeling Illini

CHAMPAIGN - I wasn't able to watch the Illinois at Nebraska game because of a scheduling conflict (tickets to a more "competitive" basketball game when the New Jersey Nets beat the Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls 97-85 on Saturday afternoon).

Most would consider me lucky for not having to witness what may have been one of the lowest of low points in recent Illini hoops history. But part of my job is watching, digesting and analyzing Illinois basketball, so I unenthusiastically fulfilled my duties and queued up the DVR expecting a train wreck.

What I saw was worse than I had imagined.

Breaking down the intricacies of an 80-57 Illinois loss would be a fruitless exercise. After a hot start, Illinois simply caved when adversity hit. The team fighting to get out of last place outhustled, out-focused and out-funned the team fighting for its NCAA Tournament life. The Illini were lifeless for the final 28 minutes. Like Illini coach Bruce Weber - who most assume will be fired at the end of the season - the players appeared to have accepted their fate.

It's all just become so sad.

Bruce Weber's postgame press conference last Wednesday. Deron Williams' vote of confidence for Weber. Dee Brown's tweet (and Demetri McCamey's subsequent re-tweet) that appeared to criticize Weber, his former coach, for publicly criticizing players and his attempt to clarify his comments the next day. Weber attempting to motivate his young bench players in the closing minutes of a 23-point loss - the worst loss by scoring margin of the Weber era - to a last-place team. Assistant Jay Price bent over on the bench, rubbing his forehead. Assistant Wayne McClain attempting to console an overwhelmed, emotional Meyers Leonard.

The saddest thing is that the calamity could continue for at least five more games, starting with Tuesday's trip to Ohio State.

"My message (to the players) was there's no pity parties," Weber said Monday. "Ohio State's not going to feel sorry for you. They have their own things. We have to come and do a better job, each player, each coach. If we can all correct one mistake, obviously it would have probably led to some victories. We still can do that. I got lots of positive, encouraging messages from (the players).

"I can't have my own pity party. (The players) can't have it. This is it. There's no sympathy from anyone."

Illinois hasn't dealt well with adversity, and most fans and media are counting them out for the rest of the season. And while the question is now more "when" not "if" the coaching staff will be replaced, Weber still plugs away.

Weber was in Chicago to watch Simeon play De La Salle.

"That's my job," Weber said. "I'm the coach at Illinois. There's a big game with lots of top recruits. I love recruiting. I love seeing high school games, seeing top players. It's never fun to go recruiting after you lose, but it's part of the job."

Now the players have to keep plugging. It's a cliché, but now they have to play for pride. Will fans be happy with six or seven conference wins? They shouldn't. But fans can turn the page, focus on the future and draw up their coaching candidate short lists. The young, social-media friendly players must focus on the present and ignore the message-board rants and the Twitter bashing.

"As much as possible, we have to keep them away from negativity," Weber said. "I got to do that. I have to do that in some ways. I always remember back my first year when we won 13 in a row to end the season and we lost to Wisconsin in the (Big Ten Tournament) championship, and I was driving home trying to listen about the brackets and everything. I happened to listen to a call-in radio show, which I should've never did and there was so much negative stuff after we had just won 13 in a row in the league. I came back and (made) a T-shirt 'positive energy' and 'do not turn on anything' because it gets to them. It gets to everyone. We got to create as much positive energy as we can."

Barring a miraculous run, the NCAA Tournament is not in the cards for Illinois (16-11, 5-9 Big Ten). They're now trying to maintain an NIT résumé. But years from now, the players won't want to look back on the final three weeks of the season with regret.

They need only to look at the two worst Illini teams of the past two decades for inspiration. Lon Kruger's 1998-99 squad (14-18 overall, 3-13 Big Ten) and Weber's 2007-08 team (16-19, 5-13 Big Ten) both ended those respective disappointing seasons on somewhat of a high note by winning three games in the Big Ten Tournament before losing the title game. Both used the momentum to fuel returns to the NCAA Tournament in 2000 and 2009.

"The message I gave our players is it's not done and over with," Weber said. "We are capable of it. We have showed it. We have played with teams. …Now we have to come together."

This team has the talent to do the same, but do they have the will?

"I told all the guys I don't want any tears until the end of the season," Weber said. "We got to play.

"We have to man up. Tough times stop. Tough people don't."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.myconnectfm.com. You can contact him at jeremy@myconnectfm.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerConnectFM

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