Illini Get Another Chance to Regain Spirit

With everything crashing down upon them, can the Fighting Illini basketball team muster enough courage to wade through a difficult Big 10 Tournament schedule, win a game or three and gain a measure of respect after a disastrous second half to its season? The answer will become clear Thursday morning in a rematch with Iowa at Indianapolis.

Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber, worn down by constant attacks on his coaching and likely to be ousted from his 9-year job, is trying mightily to encourage his basketball players to remove the massive yolk of expectation and criticism wrapped tightly around their necks. Their last victory came against Iowa in the Assembly Hall, and their rematch is Thursday morning in the Big 10 Tournament.

"It's a chance to overcome some of the things that you went through. Everybody is 0-0. Hopefully there's some renewed life to do something special, to leave the season on a positive note. I hope that's the mindset of our kids.

"We did it in '08 with a group that wasn't probably as talented as this. We had a lot of different problems that year. We won a close game, we beat Penn State in a close overtime game, got fortunate to play Minnesota in the third game and grinded that one out. Unfortunately, we ran out of gas against Wisconsin.

"The fun of March Madness is that everyone can start over. Anything can happen. You see it around the country from one year to the next, a lot of craziness. There's always a surprise team. Why not have the nice story be us?

"But the big thing is, you've got to go earn it. I've said a few times they're good kids who deserve to have better. But nobody feels sorry for them; they have to go earn it.

"They've got to reach deep inside. This is about pride, their passion for the game. We've got to let that individual pride, team pride take over for us and make a difference in the game.

"We've had our difficulties; it's all added up. I think they're not an emotional team, and that maybe catches up to us at times. We don't have the emotional leader, the guy that comes every day and brings spirit to practice. The door is open to do something. Now, are you going to take advantage of it?"

A combination of team and player problems has become magnified over time as fans and donors strengthened their assault on Weber. Demanding nothing less than his ouster as head coach, these extra pressures have contributed to the team's lack of confidence.

"Our kids don't quit. It's just that when there's adversity, that spirit, that gumption, that leader, whatever that gets them over the top (is missing). They've come with great spirit to practice every day. They've had a great attitude at practice. They've been very coachable.

"It's just been trying on them. I would like them to have success for their sake. But in life, no one gives you anything. You've got to go earn it. That's where they've got to make that decision and have that pride and passion."

The effect on Weber has been no less traumatic.

"I would lie to you if I said it hasn't been difficult. It's very difficult, it overwhelms you at times. This is my life, this is my passion. I love basketball, I love working with kids. That's why I got into it. But then when it comes down to it, I'm the leader. That's my job, and I've got to be there to help everybody else.

"There's times in the middle of the night, and I'm up. If you want to text me at 3:30-4:00 am, I'm probably up. It takes a toll on me. But during the day, you've got to help everybody else.

"I don't think people realize the toll it's taken on our kids. Their spirit, their mindset, their future, whatever, it's taken a toll. My biggest priority is to help those guys. I'm meeting with all of them right now individually; we'll go over academics, everything. And then the staff and to our families too. That's what I'm supposed to do I guess.

"We just hope we'll have a great finish here. We're still going to have some kind of postseason, I think we'll be in the NIT it looks like. So there are still opportunities to do something and have something good happen for our season."

Weber isn't taking the easy way out. He is working as hard as ever to prepare the Illini for their upcoming game.

"We have Iowa, a team we're very familiar with. We only played them once during the year, but it was a couple games ago. I think it's a good matchup for us. We'll have to stop (Matt) Gatens, we'll have to stop their transition.

"We're going to have to play well and make shots if we're going to have any chance of having some success. It would be nice if the ball went in the hoop. I think that would give us a little renewed spirit and bring a little life to some guys like D.J. (Richardson), who has had so much trouble getting the ball in the hoop. If that would happen, it would obviously make a big difference.

"Hopefully, we get a great effort from Meyers (Leonard) like we did the first game. The thing that was so impressive for him that game, he scored, but he had 14 rebounds, six offensive rebounds. He blocked shots and was active and ran the court. I thought it was his best overall game since he has been here. If we can get that kind of effort and energy out of him, it makes a big difference for us.

"We cannot come out tentative. Against Wisconsin, it's a little bit baffling why we were tentative. We've got to play with aggressiveness on both ends of the court. Get out with some good momentum and hopefully feel good about ourselves."

Richardson tries to remain positive, but he can't always hide his deep concern about the future of his coach and the Illinois program.

"Coach Weber is not worrying about it, we are not worrying about it as a team. We've got all that to the side. Coach has been doing a good job of coaching, and we're doing a good job of still listening. We've just got to go out in the court and win. That's our biggest thing.

"Coach Weber has been getting a lot of heat, and we've been getting a lot of heat. He's doing what he has to do to coach."

Brandon Paul also claims he's thinking only of the task at hand. But he wouldn't be human if he could ignore all the criticisms, some of which are directed to him personally.

"I think we try to put it aside. I just come here to play basketball, go to class and try to do my work. Just like he's trying to do his job. Obviously it's tough, but we're going to try to stay positive."

Paul shares the company line regarding the BTT opener.

"It's obviously a big opportunity for us. We've beaten them before. It's not an easy task to beat them again, but it can be done. We're going to worry about one game at a time and hopefully make a run. There's going to be a revenge factor, but hopefully we can get it done."

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