The Illinois basketball team was feted at its annual banquet Tuesday evening. It could have been a difficult time for all concerned, but great care was taken to keep everything positive.
Former coach Bruce Weber and a majority of his coaching staff were present and contributed to the evening, while new coach John Groce and athletic director Mike Thomas stayed away to allow Weber to finish what he started.
Weber, wearing neutral colors rather than the Orange of Illinois or the purple of Kansas State, joked that Rod Cardinal told him he had to be in attendance. But he had a more heart-felt reason for attending.
"The main reason I came back was for our players. It was my obligation to be part of their banquet."
Weber was well received, drawing standing ovations at the beginning and conclusion of the awards ceremony. Since he had shared the season journey with the players, his involvement brought closure to their sometimes tumultuous year.
In a vote of the players, which supposedly included a couple votes for Weber, freshman Tracy Abrams was named Most Valuable Player. Abrams is the first ever true freshman to ever receive the award; redshirt freshman Cory Bradford was honored in 1999. Weber said it was for his leadership both on and off the floor. Abrams was both shocked and pleased.
"No, I never expected it. But I really am enjoying it. It's just a great accomplishment for me and my career. I have great respect for my brothers and teammates. It's an honor my teammates felt I was one of the most valuable players on the team. It makes me want to keep working harder."
He summed up his award simply but eloquently.
"If you have a good attitude toward others, you get respect in return."
Junior Brandon Paul and sophomore Meyers Leonard both received multiple awards. Paul earned the Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy, the Lou Henson Courage Award for taking the most charges, and the Matt Heldman "Matto" Award for his hustle throughout the season. Leonard was the leading rebounder and named Most Improved.
In other awards, junior D.J. Richardson earned the Orange Krush 3-point Award. Redshirt sophomore Joseph Bertrand was 6th Man. Senior Sam Maniscalco was the obvious winner of the Kenny Battle Most Inspirational Player for his attempt to play with a major injury.
And while no actual presentation was made, Weber declared Mike Shaw to be the "MVP of the locker room" for his positive energy supporting the team. Weber said he always said the right things and encouraged the right things.
Abrams was asked how tough things have been for the players since the end of the season.
"No question the transition was tough, but Coach told us you have to stay positive and keep your head up. At first, it was shaky. Everybody was filled with emotion. But now guys are pretty much buying in with what Coach (John) Groce and his staff want to do. Open gym has been pretty competitive. I think it's settled down a lot."
New coach Groce has put the team through it's paces in workouts beginning last week. Abrams likes what he's seen so far.
"I think they went pretty good. They're really pushing, getting us to work on the things we really need to work on. Everybody is working hard trying to get better. He shows you the things you need to work on and implements that into the workouts every day."
Groce says he has emphasized skill development with the players. Abrams explains.
"A lot of shooting. Coach Groce says he wants us to get shots up. So we've been doing a lot of shooting and ball handling, and getting a little defense in. It's been pretty good so far."
He also feels good about new assistant coaches Jamall Walker and Dustin Ford.
"Coach Walker and Coach Ford are great guys. They care a lot about the players. I'm totally excited about next year."
The evening ended with two brief videos. The first was highlights of the 2011-12 season. The second was a tribute to Weber's nine years at Illinois. Seeing all the great players who played for him, and highlights from the special 2004-05 season, brought tears to more than one set of eyes.
It was a fitting way for Illini fans to say goodbye to the past and begin anew.