Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber loves Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole. They all made strong contributions to the Illini program in their four years on campus and won 81 games. The first three rank as high as second in at least one statistical category in Illini history. But missing ingredients prevented the glory hoped for each.
"My brother said to me sometime, 'They are what they are.', Weber related. "They were still good players. Mike Davis was the 2nd all-time leading rebounder. Mike Tisdale was one of the leading shot-blockers and in field goal percentage. Demetri, not only history here but history in the Big 10.
"But maybe we didn't have the physicality or the toughness. Maybe we didn't have the right roles. But one, they're great kids. All four of them went through graduation.
"I think Billy is a really good story. He was a great glue guy. He could have easily transferred but stuck with it. He did a lot of good things for us and got a lot out of his ability."
No player on the team could be trusted to make shots consistently in crunch time. Defense couldn't make up for that deficiency. Weber blames himself, but perhaps some things just weren't meant to be.
"You always blame yourself as a coach as you go back and critique yourself. We just didn't have enough ball handlers to make plays. When it got late in the game, just like when the Bulls played the Heat, you take away Derrick Rose and you're in trouble. They take away Demetri McCamey, and we're in trouble.
"We had no one else who could make a play. And then we didn't have the toughness to grind it out and win on the defensive end. Three or four block-outs, and we win three or four more games. Now we're a 4-5 seed, now we're in the top 25 the whole year, and we don't play Kansas in the second round."
Emotional considerations also played a role. Top teams have players so confident in their own abilities, they remain strong even during slumps. That trait may be born rather than created.
"Both Tisdale and Davis really struggled when things didn't go well. And even Demetri, to be honest. I think the whole thing comes down to consistency. That was our biggest problem two years in a row."
McCamey was completely self-confident when he was hitting shots, but his emotions would go to the other extreme quickly. Tisdale never overcame his doubts when problems arose. And Davis was immature toward coaching and personal responsible, especially early in his career. He acted almost hostile sometimes in practice.
"Toward anybody. He struggled with any type of correction, criticism, teaching. He's not a belligerent person. I think it was more he got down on himself than anything."
Davis may have needed a redshirt year, but the Illini needed his rebounding and athleticism as a freshman. Hindsight is always 20:20; Weber wonders what might have been.
"I thought the last 35 days, he was the most consistent on the team. You just wish it would have happened earlier. I really blame myself; I should have redshirted him. That was the whole point of his dad putting him into prep school. He knew he wasn't mature enough.
"Now if we had redshirted him, would he have clicked this year, or would he have needed another year? You just don't know."
Tying up another loose end without naming names, Weber was asked the best approach toward a player who insists on taking the last shot even when the play is designed for a teammate, and then he fails most of the time.
"You sit him."
Of course, that assumes you have an adequate replacement for him.
Some college players evolve into go-to performers with experience and confidence from previous success. Coaching helps, but the ultimate responsibility rests with the players. Weber hoped his upperclassmen would develop in this fashion.
"You hope they get better and want to make the plays. Jordan Taylor made huge jumps. The kid from Penn State made big jumps. You can improve and do some things. If we had more people to handle the ball and create, we probably could have won a few more games."
Did some Illini assume a teammate would always take the pressure shot and thus never develop the confidence or motivation to take on that responsibility? We will never know.
With a changing of the guard in 2011-12, hope springs eternal the necessary ingredients for success will be present. Weber thought he saw that at times last year, but there was no consistency.
"When we shot it well, we felt we could beat anybody in the country, and we did it. When we didn't shoot it well, we didn't have the other things to find a way to win those close games. Hopefully we have that with some of these new guys."
In parts four and five of this 9-part interview, Weber talks about his newcomers and upcoming team.