Illinois Coach Bruce Weber has many reasons to be pleased with his basketball team. Even the loss at Penn State hasn't reduced his excitement for the rest of the season. At his most recent press conference, he summarized the Penn State game before looking ahead.
"It seems like forever since the Penn State game. The thing that was most disappointing about the Penn State game was we didn't finish the game. I didn't know how we were gonna react after Michigan State because that was a disappointment.
"But then they came with a sense of urgency. I thought they played very hard. Our Matto (Play Hard Chart) was as good as it's been, in the top 10% on the year. We were in the 40's on the Matto for the whole game.
"I thought we played good basketball. I thought our bench...Dominique (Keller) finally got going and got us some things and Calvin (Brock) was a little better the last few games. So it was very positive the whole game. We just didn't finish it. It left a bad taste.
"Obviously, it was the free throws. But it was also a blockout, an execution on a play, a defensive stop. If one thing happens our way, we probably win the game. Now, we had to go recruiting and gave the kids a couple days off. And you kind of sit back and watch. You have no control. I guess the best scenario happened for us. We ended up a 2 seed."
Some teams might be discouraged after two losses to end their regular season. Especially when they gave up a 10 point lead in Happy Valley. But Weber says his players still feel good about themselves.
"I don't think anyone's really lost confidence. Mike Davis is disappointed he didn't make the free throw. Chester (Frazier) is disappointed he didn't make a free throw. We missed five straight free throws, that was tough to deal with.
"I thought we played well, to be honest. I always say you play your butts off and play as hard as you can, and I won't be mad at you. I think they did. It was hard for me to be mad other than just a blockout or something down the stretch. You work so hard to get there, do the little things at the end of the game, the things that make a difference."
Despite falling short of a Big 10 Championship, Weber was happy with the Illini's season.
"I think we had a good season. Probably better than most. Most of the feedback I get is we were better than the expectations of the fans. I think we created some excitement.
"I think the players have enjoyed each other, they've had a taste of success. I think we were close to a Big 10 Championship. They (Michigan State) had the endurance, they had the toughness to win some of those games that we didn't have. That would be the next step."
Weber was asked if he expected Illinois to be as good as 23-8 and second in the Big 10.
"I did. I guess that's just my viewpoint. I see kids making improvement. I've witnessed a good part of it. You've got good kids that want to be good and buy in, who listen and are coachable. I thought we were close last year. I think we showed it in the Big 10 Tournament. We finally put it together. Pieces have to fall into place."
Improvement over last year was the key.
"Everybody improved on our team. And then adding Dominique in the mix helped us. So I thought we could be there. I don't think it's optimism or idealism. I just thought, if these guys work at it, we have a system. If they believe in the system and execute it, you're gonna have success."
Many fans assumed this would be a transition season, preparing for the influx of new talent next year. But Weber wouldn't buy into that then, and he won't accept it now as Illinois' tournament fortunes are being downplayed.
"I want to win now. At the beginning of the year, everybody said 'next year.' I said to heck with that, and I told the players to use it as a motivator. It's the same thing now. You don't know what's gonna happen next year. You don't know about injuries, you don't know where life's gonna take you.
"Live for the moment. Get the most out of it. This is it for the seniors. So I hope they realize they can make some noise in the Big 10 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. Keep the excitement going."
Weber believes his Illini want to remove the bad taste in their mouths from the MSU and PSU losses, and there is no better way than to work hard preparing for a run in the Big 10 Tournament.
"I don't even talk about the losing streak. It's two games, and it's the first time all year. It wasn't like we got killed. I think it left a little bit of a knot in the stomach. They've been good in practice."