Illinois coach Bruce Weber discussed a number of topics at his postseason press conference. He began by summarizing the 2008-2009 season from his perspective.
"It was a positive season. Obviously, when you lose at the end and with Chester Frazier's injury, that could have gone a little bit better. But overall, we set a goal of getting into the NCAA tournament. We did that. We gave them the goal of 24 wins. We did that. You ask kids to make improvement. And we did that. You can go down the line.
"We were talking in a staff meeting about most improved, and each guy could bring up a player on our team. There are five or six players deep who have made improvement. As a staff, that's a rewarding thing for us. It makes us feel good that we did something, we got our players to improve.
"Last year, the best thing that happened was the Big 10 Tournament. The success we had really drove us to the summer and motivated us. We had a great spring, summer and fall, which set us up for the success we had during the season.
"Now, with getting a taste of the NCAA, making a run at the Big 10 title, it gave these young guys a taste of that. And I hope it will be a motivating factor leading into this off season. Last season was important, this one's gonna continue to be important."
The seniors will be missed, of that there is no doubt. Weber was especially pleased they were able to put an exclamation point on their careers with their best performances.
"I feel good about the seniors. Each one has a nice little story line now. They weren't the highly recruited, superstar type kids, but they have been very loyal, very effective for our program. Chester's been through many ups and downs with injuries and everything, but you couldn't have asked anyone for a better effort.
"He cared more, wanted to win, wanted to do what the coaches asked. I think he wants to get into coaching and stay on as a student assistant. I think that will happen if everything goes as planned.
"Trent Meacham is a nice story, coming back to Champaign and getting to live a dream. And then you think about his last game, the last ten minutes of the Western Kentucky game. He played at such a high level. I think he made big strides. Coming in, if you had said he would be one of our defensive stoppers, take our most charges, I would have bet against that. But he became an effective player for us.
"Calvin Brock had his own story. Some inconsistency in many different ways. I told him all along I hope it has a good ending. His efforts in the last game and down the stretch, he got to play more minutes and gave us a great lift. I think he'd like to play, get into coaching down the road. I hope it will be an even better story as he goes on.
"And C. J. Jackson we always joke was a lucky charm. With basketball we go to the NCAA Tournament, goes to football and they go to the Rose Bowl, comes back to basketball and we go to the NCAA Tournament. Just a good kid, good attitude. All those guys will get degrees, and hopefully that's one of the main reasons they came here."
The players vote for Most Valuable Player. But if Weber had a vote, he knows who he would pick.
"To me, it would have to be Chester because of his effort every day, his desire to win, the way he practiced. Trent could make a push for it. Mike Davis could make a push for it. I think those three guys would be the ones that you look at. In my mind, I knew what I was getting every day with Chester. And when he didn't play down the stretch, it made a big difference with our team."
All the seniors provided quality leadership, and there is some concern over who will step up and be accountable for next year's group.
"Leadership is a concern. Drive, work effort in practice. We have a four week period coming up in the spring where we do workouts and weights. That'll be one of the key things. Somebody's got to grab the guys and lead them.
"I think in a nice way Chester will still be around alot. I think he has the respect and the ear of the guys. He can help, but he can't be on the court. Once you start playing pickup games, that's when it's gonna take somebody to take over that leadership role.
"Mike Tisdale did a nice job quietly of making some progress as a leader, saying things. He's pretty consistent about taking care of business on a daily basis. Practicing hard when he needs to and doing extra. So I think he'll be one guy. We're still gonna have to find some other guys in the mix. But we'll just have to wait and see how that unfolds."
Weber was pleased that Michigan State has made it to the Final Four, and Purdue and Penn State have carried the Big 10 banner well in the postseason. The national press, much of it from the East coast, have lambasted the Big 10, and these teams have earned back some respect for the conference.
"I'm really excited for Michigan State, for Tom (Izzo), for their program. It helps our league. We were battered around a little bit by the national media. I'm sure they're not coming back and jumping on the Michigan State bandwagon. But it's good publicity. I was also happy for Eddie DeChellis (PSU). They had a huge win at Florida. To get to the Final Four in the NIT is a nice step for him and his program. Any time a team in our league does well, it helps everybody.
"I think the best thing about our league is that we're young. Purdue had a good showing and gave UConn a game. They have young guys. We have some young guys. Michigan State has some young talented guys. Penn State, you can go on down the line. Ohio State lost (B.J.) Mullens, but if the other guys come back they're gonna be talented. Minnesota. So I think our league can be even more effective next year."
Weber was asked what it takes to win on the biggest stage. He was pleased to see Michigan State and Villanova upholding the notion that good coaching and team play can succeed.
"Either you have the NBA guys, the franchise guys. Or, I said to Tom (Izzo) you gave everyone hope that you can do it with coaching and getting guys to buy in. They have good guys, don't get me wrong. But the thing I thought they had was toughness. I think the same with Villanova. There are some people who say they might not have a guaranteed lock NBA guy.
"Both of those teams did it as a team, with toughness, defense. I think that's exciting. If we can keep this group together and keep adding guys on, we can have the opportunity to make that kind of run. Either you need the elite players, or you need to get guys to buy in with toughness, and you need everything to fall into place.
"Just think about Louisville. Back to back years, they didn't get there. And they have had pretty good players and good coaching. So it's not an easy thing."
Weber always finds ways of motivating his players. They will need to work hard in the off season to achieve greater success than this year. So seeing the success of some of their recent opponents can hopefully serve to inspire new levels of improvement.
"I'm gonna talk about with our players the fact Missouri was in the Elite Eight, Mighigan State was in the Final Four. How close are you? It takes that commitment, that effort, the improvement, the team play, all that stuff to get there. And everything's got to fall into place. I hope that's a good tease, that's what I'm gonna say. We're close, but that extra step or two is not easy."