Jerrance Howard, like all other Illinois players, coaches and fans, was despondent after the loss at Indiana Thursday. When asked on WDWS radio what happened, he could provide no easy explanations.
"I really couldn't tell you. I thought we did a lot of standing. We didn't go inside, and when we did go inside we didn't play strong. We didn't push the ball in transition and get back to our play early in the year, or cut hard or move hard.
"We're disappointed. It's one of the most embarrassing losses since I've been here. I thought we prepared well and had great practices leading up to this game. The only thing we can do is get back to work and hopefully get a win here at home against Penn State."
From the outset, it was understood the Illini would go as far as Demetri McCamey could take them. He has been off his game the last couple weeks, and so has guard partner D.J. Richardson. Howard says the Illini staff is working to help them rediscover their games.
"I think Meechie (McCamey) is putting a lot of pressure on himself to make shots. I think he's dribbling a little too much. We've got to get him out of his slump. D.J. hasn't been making shots the last five games.
"We're gonna do some individual workouts before and after practice to get these guys going. At the end of the day, we're gonna need Meechie to be successful to make a run here."
Most everyone agrees that freshman Jereme Richmond needs to see more playing time. Howard explains why he didn't start the Indiana game.
"Jereme Richmond is a very mature kid. Nobody really knows this, but Coach went to him to start against Indiana, and he said he really didn't want to. I think because he's been playing so well off the bench.
"He's gonna play, whether he starts or not. He's gonna bring that toughness and that rebounding factor, so he has to be on the floor. He's figuring the offense out."
Howard developed a close relationship with Richmond during the recruiting process and was with him while he convalesced at home recently.
"Just being there for him actually. I spent the day in Waukegan with him, just to help him with everything that was going on. One day I was on the road, and that's when I called him. We were calling back and forth. We have a good relationship. He just needed me to reach out and be with him and his family in Waukegan. It turned out great."
Some Illini fans were irate Richmond didn't play in the Wisconsin road game, one where the freshman made his own way to the game after his two days at home. But Richmond understood.
"It was understood: you don't practice, you don't play. I think Jereme made it a lot easier on the staff and players when we got to Wisconsin. He knew he wouldn't play; he said it. So there was nothing to really deal with."
With the Illini now 14-7 on the season and considered a bubble team for the NCAA Tournament, some fans want to give up on the year and play younger players extensively. Among those requested is Crandall Head. Howard explains the situation with the freshman guard.
"Looking back at it, we should have redshirted him. But he played so well preseason, we tried to transform him into a point guard which he's never played in his life.
"I talk to Luther (Head, former Illini and Crandall's brother) all the time, and one thing we've talked about is we haven't had to sit down with him and talk about having a good attitude. When a kid with that much ability and talent keeps a good attitude and continues to get better, the sky's the limit.
"I think before it is all said and done, he's gonna be one of the best that's come out of here. I really believe that. I know I'm biased because I recruited him, and his brother is one of my best friends. But with his ability and athletic ability, he's gonna be good. I believe that in my heart. I'm not just saying that to make people feel good. Our whole staff believes that."
It wasn't just the confusion over positions. While Head missed his senior year of high school recovering from knee surgery, he developed bad habits with his shot. He is working before and after practice on improving his form, but it takes time. He is also learning to prevent careless turnovers. By this time next year, everyone hopes he will have transformed himself to make a solid contribution.
"He's done a good job, and that's a credit to our guys too. Him and Jereme Richmond are like brothers. He's done a good job of helping him with this process. And guys tell him you've got to wait your turn. Billy Cole has really grabbed him and Joe Bertrand and said, 'I didn't play my first two years either.'
"It's disappointing because I thought he could help us this year. Making that move over to point guard really (set him back). I really don't think he's a point guard. In our offense, he needs to be on the wing. He can guard the 1, 2. or 3. We're seeing now that next year he'll have to be on our wing."
Illinois needs to find a point guard to replace McCamey next year. With Head no longer a consideration, can entering freshman Tracy Abrams give the team 20-25 quality minutes at the point next year?
"Most definitely. He's not as talented as Demetri as far as where to get shots. But the intangible things, his toughness, his leadership, he's a natural born leader. He loves to guard. We got on him early because we saw, yes he's talented, but all the little intangible things that I don't think we've had in a long time. That's what he's gonna bring to the table."
As the Illini have discovered to their discontent this season, one point guard isn't enough. Who will alternate with him?
"Brandon Paul, especially for his future if he wants to play in the pros, he's gonna have to play point guard. He's talented enough. He's another guy that's really never played it, and he's not a natural point. But with his ability and talent level, he can play the point guard position."
Now that Abrams and his four fellow freshmen are signed, there are no more limits on how much contact Illini coaches can have with them. Howard finds this beneficial.
"Those guys being signed, you can reach out to them more. There's text messages now, there's unlimited phone calls. You can actually go see them and spend time with them. That really helps. Once you get them signed, there's unlimited contact."
Howard is an ace recruiter, and he is out on the road again this weekend. It is harder after a loss.
"I'll be on the road in the St. Louis area, Springfield and Chicago these next couple days. These are the tough ones, coming off a loss, but you have to do it regardless. You can't hide. I think that sometimes works to your advantage. When you come off a loss like this, and you show up in a kid's gym, I think that goes a long way toward recruiting the family."
Being a college coach places impossible demands on a person' time and great pressure on his family.
"Any time we have a day off, we're out on the road. It's a part of your life. Kudos to my wife and family. It's really hard, especially being young and having two kids. It's really hard for my wife, but she holds the fort down.
"I'm 30 years old, and Coach Weber's been in the game 30+ years on the road. When you're driving 4-5 hours on the road, you wonder how many more years can you do this. But it's a big part of our program. We've got the ball rolling, and it's our job to keep these kids coming in."
It is fortunate the Illini have few scholarships to give in 2012 as there is not an abundance of top talent in the 2012 recruiting class in the state. But there will be scholarships for the two great years that follow.
"We have evaluated this 2012 class, the junior class, evaluated a lot of players. For what we need, there's not a lot of players. But the freshmen and sophomores are unbelievable. We don't have to go out of state, which is good. Anytime you have that much talent in your backyard, you've got to get it done."
Jabari Parker, Tommy Hamilton and Alex Foster are just three of a number of top players available in 2013, and precocious freshmen like Jahlil Okafor, Paul White and Milik Yarbrough are already becoming household names. Coaches literally spend years recruiting players of this caliber.
"With the freshmen and sophomores, you've just got to grind it out. There's some kids we've been on since their seventh grade year. If you want to separate yourself and have a chance to get these elite athletes, you have to be there, and you have to balance it out."
Speaking with Howard about recruiting is always encouraging. He is credited with recruiting all five players in next year's freshman group, and he is strongly involved with many of the youngsters mentioned above. But the present is the main focus right now.
Penn State visits the Assembly Hall Tuesday, and they seem to have the Illini's number. Especially their super point guard Talor Battle. Who will guard him Tuesday?
"We talked about playing Joseph Bertrand and Crandall, see if somebody could give us some kind of life and spirit on defense. It's gonna be tough. We know our backs are gonna be against the wall.
"You can't whine or complain, you can't feel sorry for yourself. You've just got to get back to work. Knowing Coach Weber, we'll turn it up another notch."