From the coaching staff and administration to the players and fans, Illinois was expected to be one of the top basketball teams in the Big 10 and a high NCAA Tournament seed. That didn't happen. Fans are angry, and coaches and players are frustrated. Illini coach Bruce Weber reflected on the season.
"We had high expectations going into the season, with four seniors and some talented young guys. We probably didn't live up to all the expectations, and that's one of the problems in anything, especially in sports. You put those high expectations out there and don't reach it, it is more disappointment than we probably needed.
"I thought we had some shining moments, had a great start. Had some tough close games that didn't go our way. A putback, a few blockouts, taking care of the basketball. We didn't really turn it over if you consider numbers; we weren't one of the worst in the nation by any means. But when you're in a league where some of the top teams never turn it over and never foul, it really makes it very glowing when you do turn it over.
"And then just making a play. Those 3-4 games are probably the difference between feeling pretty good and maybe getting a 4-5 seed, and not feeling good."
A strong Big 10 conference, with numerous top upperclassmen and relative parity throughout the league, produced many upsets. Road victories were especially rare except for the top three teams. The Illini lost several close road games, games in which they had leads but couldn't finish.
Several Illini players endured slumps midseason, and it contributed to the downfall. Point guard Demetri McCamey, to whom the team looked upon as their star, couldn't always bring the energy needed. It seemed like a Jekyll-Hyde team, alternating between great and average.
Finally, everyone pulled together near the end, reminding Weber of the beginning of the season.
"I thought we played really good basketball the last 3-4 weeks. Not that we won every game, but I thought we were starting to play with the same energy, sharing the basketball, doing some of the same stuff."
Being selected for the NCAA Tournament was a big plus, and it gave Illini players a new lease on life. Considered an underdog to UNLV in Tulsa, the Illini played one of their best games of the year.
"We played well. We heard it from fans, players and coaches. I don't know if that was our best game. You go back to Carolina or Gonzaga or Northwestern, there were some pretty good games along the stretch. But on that stage and in that venue of an NCAA Tournament, it was pretty impressive."
The Illini wanted to continue their excellent play in the following game against Kansas. It didn't happen.
"You were hoping we would make a push, but Kansas was very good and played a special game. We just weren't totally up to it.
"We gave a great effort against Kansas. We had to make some shots. If you watch the Tournament, which has been unbelievable for basketball fans, the close games and crazy games have been amazing. When you make shots, especially with the three ball, you look better as a coach or as a team.
"I really thought the Kansas game, if we could have hit the three ball like VCU did, the defense probably would have been the difference-maker for us. We had the looks but never got it down. We never really put the pressure on them like VCU would have been able to."
While Weber's job appears safe for now, the same may not be said for all his assistants. A large number of fans and boosters became extremely upset with Weber and have put pressure on the administration to make changes. Weber is unsure what will happen when he reviews the season with the UI athletic director.
"I don't know. I'll meet with Mr. (Ron) Guenther, probably after the Final Four. We always have a year-ending meeting and meet with the staff. Some of our guys are always trying to get jobs. We'll see what happens."
With or without changes, there is hope next year's squad will have a different chemistry and perhaps create renewed excitement for the Illinois program. It will be a young team, but Weber is excited about its potential.
"I don't like to say starting over totally, but you have a huge group of young guys coming in. I feel very good about our freshman class. We've got some kids that are quality kids and good players. They seem to have the energy and excitement that you want.
"And then you still have a nucleus here of guys that have shown well. You've got to feel good about what D.J. (Richardson) did at the end. Brandon Paul had some opportunities. I thought Crandall (Head) had some great minutes.
"Jereme (Richmond) has a lot of potential. Tyler Griffey and Meyers (Leonard) have very good potential if they can take that big step and be good quality players.
"For having a young team, I think the positive looking at next year is the league will be very young next year. It was very old this year, with a lot of experience. As a whole, like us a lot of new people, the league will have that same look next year."
In part two, Weber elaborates on next year's team.