Illinois coach Bruce Weber led a positive evening celebrating this past season's Illini basketball team. Mike Davis came on strong the last half of his senior season, showing the maturity and consistency to be named Most Valuable Player. He was especially please the honor was voted on by his teammates.
"It's amazing. I had a great season this year, but I couldn't do it without my teammates. I'm grateful that they voted for me. It's awesome I had the respect of my teammates. It's a great honor, but I wouldn't be able to do it without them."
Davis matured into a consistent force midway through his final season. He brought his best game after game when his team needed him most.
"I did. I finally figured out I needed to give my all in my last season, give it a good run. We came up a little bit short, losing to a great Kansas team, but looking back we had a good season."
The Illini coaching staff handed out a number of additional awards. The Rebounders Award, presented by Illini Rebounders, went to Davis also. He grabbed 243 boards, an average of 7.1 a game. Brandon Paul earned the Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy, emblematic of having the highest free throw shooting percentage in Big Ten play. He shot 84.2% from the line this season.
The Orange Krush 3-Point Award went to senior Demetri McCamey, who shot 45.1% from the arc while also leading in total three point shots made. Senior Mike Tisdale won the Lou Henson Courage Award, given to the player who took the most charges.
Brandon Paul won the Matt Heldman "Matto" Award by accumulating the most hustle points during the season. The Illini were 19-1 when they won the play-hard battle this year, their lone loss being their final game to Kansas in the NCAA Tournament. Weber hopes Paul will bring that intensity for 35 minutes this next season.
The Kenny Battle Inspirational Player award is voted on by the players and coaches. They selected senior Bill Cole. And Crandall Head was named most improved after going from the deep bench to playing significant minutes late in the season.
Weber celebrated the four seniors during the festivities. All made a major impact. McCamey is now second all-time in assists behind Bruce Douglas, and he is highly-ranked in several other career categories. Tisdale missed the top spot in blocked shots by one. Davis is now second in career-rebounding. Weber reminded how much they improved throughout their careers.
"When you go back to freshman year, other than maybe Demetri, they didn't have much acclaim coming in. I kind of joke, I gave Jimmy Price, the weight coach, a big challenge. They did make a lot of strides, major strides, from freshman to sophomore year. Then when you look at the record books, they did some special things as individuals.
"Billy, his perseverence. Demetri early probably didn't have the right direction all the time. He became a lot more focused. Tis has been pretty stable. He's the first guy in every day, at every practice, every meal, everything we do he's always there. He's been a little more mature.
"And Mike Davis has come a long way the last 6-7 weeks of the season. He played consistently, that's why he got the MVP. I think the kids appreciated that. He came to practice every day and did what he was supposed to."
The one player not present was Jereme Richmond, who has left school and has entered the NBA draft. Weber was forthright if not completely detailed about the situation.
"I didn't know Jereme was gonna go. It was one day to the next a different mindset. I just wish him the best. I hope he works at it, and it will be good for everybody in the long run."
Weber elaborated on the quick change in Richmond's thinking.
"He was here Monday and was all fired up and would be part of it. He came in Wednesday and said he's thinking about it. We talked, and we talked to mom and dad. We went through that week, and then the weekend he made the decision not to come back.
"He had it in his mind he needed to leave. That's his mindset. I've encouraged the parents to get an agent and have him get in the gym. If you're gonna make the move, you've got to be ready for it. I think he'll have an opportunity."
Weber still communicates with the Richmond family and reminds Richmond will always be part of the Illinois family.
"I talked to his mom Friday. They're in the agent process. I just tried to encourage them. The big thing is he's got to get in the gym and be ready. If you're gonna make the move, you've got to work at it."
While the Illini finished with a 20 win season and made it to the third round of the NCAA Tournament, Weber admitted his team did not live up to expectations. He reminded the team lost 8 games in which they either led or were tied with less than a minute to play.
Now, he must create a new team with a new chemistry. Five players will be missing, with six new ones expected to arrive in June. To that end, he has named D.J. Richardson captain, at least for now.
"I think he's the leader of the group. He's got some experience now. He's the guy that always gets them together, he guards, he's a guy that recruited a lot of these younger guys. We just thought we needed some leadership because we're young and needed someone to get us going right away. Maybe give him some confidence boost too.
"He needs to be sure they get in the gym. He's been coming in all the time. He got hurt Sunday night at 10:30 pm playing cut throat one-on-one. So he's starting to do that. We're just hoping that's contagious.
"We're excited we have young talent, but people have to make improvement. I talked about (Darius) Morris from Michigan. I talked about (David) Brooks from Penn State, or Jordan Taylor from Wisconsin. Those guys made major steps.
"I think whether it's D.J. or Brandon, Tyler Griffey or Meyers (Leonard) or Joe Bertrand, we need some guys to make some big steps and give us some stability so the young guys can kind of just blend in."
Hope springs eternal, and it is possible next year's team can surpass the one just concluded. But it will be significantly different without the four graduating seniors.