The Illinois basketball team has the weight of the world on its shoulders. It is on a major losing streak that shows no end in sight. Coach Bruce Weber's job is in severe jeopardy; many fans and media are already listing possible replacements. And the players let themselves down by caving to a Nebraska onslaught last Saturday.
The negativity emanating from Illini Nation is increasing exponentially. Weber fears for his players. They have to attend class and face negative students. They are bombarded by insults on the Internet, radio and television. In an effort to limit the onslaught, Weber did not make his players available to the media Monday.
"As much as possible, we've got to keep them away from negativity. I've got to do that in some way. I know it gets to them.
"I remember back in my first year we won (the Big 10 outright), but we lost to Wisconsin for the (Big 10 tournament) championship. I was driving home and was listing to a call-in radio show, which I should have never done. There was so much negative; we had just won 13 in a row and won the league.
"We've got to create as much positive energy as we can. It's very tough. I have to be positive and tell them to avoid as much as they can."
There were plenty of tears in the Illinois locker room after the Nebraska debacle. Meyers Leonard cried on the court. Weber knows Leonard is young and highly emotional. He cares deeply about his team and wants it to be successful. But Weber wants the crying to cease.
"I told the guys I don't want any more tears the rest of the season. We've got to play. I told them that's for me too. I can't have a pity party. There's no sympathy out there. If we're going to feel sorry for ourselves, we'll just let the season slip by. So we have to man-up. Tough times stop; tough people don't. That's all we can do."
Weber is treating his team like any good coach must in this situation. Caring about the long-term, Weber is still coaching, still trying to prepare his youngsters for a better season in 2012-13. This despite the strong likelihood he will lose his job shortly.
Whatever time he has left, he wants his Illini to end the season on a positive note with heads held high. That is everyone's wish, but getting it will be difficult. Up next is an extremely difficult foe. Ohio State, losers of two of their last three and victims of the Illini in Champaign, will be sky high in Columbus Tuesday night.
The Buckeyes want a blowout victory, and most assume they will get it. They are still 10-4 on the season and possess the best starting five in the league. Center Jared Sullinger is always a major force. Point guard Aaron Craft, shooting guard William Buford and forward Deshaun Thomas will all likely play professionally. And sophomore Lenzelle Smith exploded for 28 points in a recent game.
Their losses at home with Michigan State and at Michigan were created in large part by subpar shooting. Against MSU, Thomas and Buford were each 2-12 and 0-7 from three-point land. At UM, Craft, Buford and Smith were 5-21 and 0-7 on the arc. If they shoot that poorly Tuesday, the Illini may have a chance. But the Buckeyes are both wounded and hungry. Expect a peak performance from the home team.
The Illini would benefit from accurate shooting. Even when Leonard passes out of the post to open teammates, they often miss the shots. A solid shooting effort on the road would help. They also need to play as aggressively on the defensive end as they did against OSU in Champaign. Defense has eluded them the past few games, magnifying their problems.
Weber sat Brandon Paul through the first TV timeout at Nebraska. It didn't inspire him to a solid game, but it did send a message. Does Weber have any other changes in mind?
"I want to have them come to practice and compete. That's the most important thing. They've got to show me that they all want to compete and play and be a part of the rest of the season. We've had tough times; I want to see who will compete for Illinois."
They will have to compete at their best just to keep the game close. A win at this point would be a minor miracle.
Despite the guillotine poised directly above his neck, Weber keeps on keepin' on. He's a soldier and knows his duty. Instead of staying home and sulking Saturday evening, he went to a big high school game in the Chicago area, Simeon vs. De La Salle. Some were surprised, but it may have been a positive escape for Weber.
"That's just my job. I'm the coach at Illinois, and there was a big game with some top recruits. I love recruiting, I love seeing high school games with top players. It's never fun to go recruiting after you lose, but that's just part of the job. There were a lot of coaches there, a lot of people. It was a good chance to see people and see a good basketball game."
If hard work and dedication were enough to win and keep your job, Weber would be at Illinois the rest of his career. But at this point, barring a sudden and convincing turnaround, it could be only a matter of time before he is applying for other jobs. Ohio State figures to speed the transition.