Illinois head coach Bruce Weber's job is on the line. Many Illini fans blame him for a season that has fallen apart. They will say the team quit on its embattled coach. But in Lincoln Saturday, the players appeared to quit on themselves. There was no pride, no self-respect, no willingness to fight back during adversity.
Illini psyches are fragile anyway after so many Big 10 losses. But when they saw their early 16-7 lead evaporate, any confidence they had to begin the game drained from their bodies. As Nebraska began having success on both ends of the floor, Illini body language sagged noticeably.
It gave Cornhusker players a positive feeling, and that became an air of invincibility as they made one shot after another. Nebraska outscored the Illini 17-2 to end the first half, and they extended that to 36-5 deep into the second stanza. The Illini substituted freely after that.
Weber described the situation perfectly.
"The weight of the world is on our shoulders, and it just kind of caved us in. At the beginning was the best we've played, and we had the biggest lead since the Big 10 opener."
Brandon Paul did not start, an attempt by Weber to awaken his star to his leadership, ball handling and shot selection responsibilities. The Illini sans Paul moved the ball well against Nebraska's man-to-man defense.
Paul appeared to be hustling, getting a couple early deflections when he entered. But he immediately started jacking up threes, countering team efforts. He finished with two points, three assists and three turnovers in 26 uneventful minutes. He was 0-4 from the arc.
D.J. Richardson led the Illini with 15 points, and Abrams added 11 and three assists. Abrams was called for his second foul with 6:39 left to play in the first half, and his absence magnified Illini problems on the offensive end. Meyers Leonard added 9 points but only five rebounds.
Weber says the Illini continued to battle to the end, although it was mostly with deep reserves happy to receive playing time.
"Our kids did not quit. There were tears in the locker room. It's been hard, no doubt. We've got great kids; they care, we care, the coaches care. We've just got to keep fighting, that's all we can do."
Late in the game, Meyers Leonard broke down crying as he was removed from the game for the final time. Ironically, that was the only bright spot during the game. He proved that he cares, so perhaps Weber is correct, at least with some of his players.
But the loss of confidence was obvious and extreme. Certainly, many things have gone against the Illini this year, and doubt creeps in during these times. But with so much on the line, there was no obvious effort to regroup.
There was no leadership on the floor when it was needed most. At some point, the players have to take ownership of the team if they want to win. That hasn't happened.
It is also true any team that is hitting nearly 60% of its shots will see its confidence shoot through the roof. Once the game turned, everything went Nebraska's way.
"It was their night. I've been there before. If you coach a long time, and you're gonna get your butts beat. Sometimes it happens."
Sadly, it had to happen to the Illini in a game they needed to win at all costs to help their NCAA tournament cause. To lose in such an extreme fashion not only damages confidence level for the rest of the season, it nearly sets in cement the desire of many fans to fire Weber and start over.
Regardless, Weber won't throw his players under the bus. He knows he must try to stay positive no matter what, for their sake.
"Every day they've been good. I'm so proud of them. I've enjoyed coaching them. We have some issues like every other team. But at the same time, if you go into the locker room right now, you can tell they care. They're hurting.
"We've got to see if we can help them. The wheels came off tonight, and now we've got to see if we can get the wheels back on."
All that may be true. But even if Weber hasn't lost his players, he is losing his fan base. The next game at Ohio State holds no promise whatsoever, and the two remaining home dates aren't likely to be very pretty either. That is, unless divine intervention steps in and gives a hand.