Illinois had the lead and the momentum against Northwestern late Saturday night, but a series of forced and unforced errors allowed the Wildcats to get back in the game and win at the end. Illini coach Bruce Weber wouldn't allow his players to speak with the media afterward. He explains.
"One of the reasons I didn't let them talk to (the media) after the game, I'm trying to get something to wake them up, jolt something. In a way, you could say we were letting them off the hook, and they're almost happy when they don't have to talk to the media.
"But on the other hand, they're in Chicago and there's so much attention, and they sit in the locker room and no one says anything. No one steps up to the plate and says, 'Guys, we've got to do this, we've got to do that.' I didn't think it was fair for them to go get attention with the media.
"I don't know if it's right or wrong, but I'm trying to do something to get somebody to step up to the plate. You can always second guess. Hopefully, I can find and hit that hot button somewhere here."
The Illini have more talent than last year's 24-10 team, but senior leaders Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham graduated, leaving a terrible void. Frazier used the force of his personality plus an unselfish, high-energy style to motivate and coerce his younger mates to play at a high level and focus on every possession until the game was over.
Frazier hated to lose, and he gave 100% every minute of every day to have a quality season. Weber is trying desperately to find the next Frazier.
"The losses always affect the coaches and fans harder than it does the young men. But when winning becomes so important to the team that losing hurts, that's when you make the steps.
"It takes awhile with different kids, different personalities. The freshmen are trying to survive, the sophomores are starting to figure it out. It means a lot more senior year, it means everything. I've watched it for 30 years, and it's always been that kind of process. When you lose, does it mean enough to change, to improve, to put in more time to figure out a way to help the team be successful? That's the question."
In an effort to motivate otherwise reluctant leaders, Weber tried naming captains.
"Sometime in December I named some captains. I said to Billy (Cole) and Demetri (McCamey), 'Hey, you guys have shown some leadership, you're gonna be captains.' The other night, when I walked in the locker room and no one was saying anything, the guys I named captains hadn't spoken up or taken accountability for the team."
So now Weber is trying a new tactic.
"'Maybe we need to have you guys (players) name captains that you feel need to lead you.' Again, I'm trying for a hot button to get somebody to really take accountability."
Weber provided examples of what he wants.
"When we get into the gut-check part of the game, when things aren't going perfect, when a team is pressing us somebody says, 'Guys, let's get in press offense.' When somebody knocks a pass away somebody says, 'Let's get into our offense.'
"When somebody scores a couple times in a row, somebody says, 'We need to shut out everybody. Let's talk, let's do this.' Or, when somebody makes a mistake, go up to them, pat them on the back and say, 'You're fine, you'll be all right, let's make the next play.' Those are the things I'm looking for, and I hope we can find it.
"Make sure guys come to practice hard every day. Hold everyone accountable. Make sure we get some consistency. Those are things that have plagued us all year."
Weber hopes the players can choose team leaders wisely. Perhaps peer pressure will help the cream rise to the top.
"I'm gonna let them vote, and we'll see how that goes. If that doesn't work, we'll take those guys out of the hat and try to vote again. I told them I would let them vote on it. But those guys have got to take that role and take some pride in it."
The big question is whether anyone on the team is capable of serving a leadership role. After all, Weber acknowledges the act of letting his players vote for captains is a last-ditch effort.
"If you have to name them or vote for them, usually you're struggling because you're trying to find ways to create leadership. Captains usually are there. They take over the team. Last year, Chester and Trent just took over our team.
"I never named a captain the whole year with Deron (Williams), Dee (Brown) and Luther (Head). They just took the team. You don't have to name them. When you have to search, prod and vote for someone to be captain, usually you're in trouble."
If there is one ray of light shining through the dark cloud, it is the fact the players held a player-only meeting Sunday. Weber was unsure who started it, but he is hopeful it will help. Mike Tisdale was vague on the details but discussed concepts.
"We just came together, talked a little bit. Seeing where each other's at and what we need to do. It was just a good team thing for us I guess. We'll see how it helps. It was everybody's idea. We got the stuff off our chests we needed to.
"It's important to be a team. Everyone can't be on their own separate thing. I think coming together and talking like we did will be good for us. I think we'll be a little more positive with each other. Help each other out hopefully. Just play harder, play to win."
Tisdale thinks experience should account for something in the voting.
"I think the upperclassmen should be because they've been here the longest. They should know what's going on and be more vocal. We'll decide in the next couple days. If that doesn't work, we'll decide some more."
Freshman D.J. Richardson might be that leader sometime down the road, but freshmen are at a disadvantage when trying to tell older players what to do. Plus, they are still learning how to play and lack the confidence a leader must show under duress.
Richardson said Bill Cole initiated the player meeting.,/P>
"Bill was the first to ask about a team meeting. Last game, Coach Weber named Bill and I defensive captains, and Demetri and Tisdale offensive captains. So Bill contacted me first about the meeting. We texted the other players to tell them we were gonna have a meeting.
"Bill and Jeff Jordan were probably the most vocal. But everybody stepped in and said something. It was a teammates' meeting, something we needed to get off our chests. And something we needed to communicate about, for everyone on the team to get on the same page to win games. We talked about stuff we're gonna keep between each other."
The initial vote will not be unanimous as different players have different preferences. Tisdale mentioned one or more of the juniors and seniors. Dominique Keller singled out McCamey. Richardson had a unique and thoughtful choice.
"Right now, I'd probably have to go with Bubba (Chisholm) and Bill. Bubba is a walkon and doesn't play, but he tries as hard as he can to do what he can. Some guys probably don't try as hard as they can. Bubba tries to do anything he can to make the team better. I know Bill Cole also will as an upperclassman."
Chisholm doesn't play. Would the players respect his leadership from the bench?
"Yeah, I think they will listen to Bubba. It's hard to sit on the bench of a Division I team and just cheer your teammates. You have to have heart to do what Bubba does. He leads by example. Every day he comes in and plays hard. He knows he's not gonna get in the game unless we beat a team by 20-30 points. That's a hard road to go."
Chisholm can't help the players from the bench while the game is in progress. Can he make up for it at other times?
"It's not hard because we have timeouts every four minutes. He can get in there and make sure everybody stays all right. If he sees somebody's head down, he can take them to the side and get them to put their head up."
One way or the other, it is a dilemma. If one or more leaders can be found, progress can be made and important victories achieved. Without leadership, the team might spiral downward and crash. Richardson thinks it is still not too late to turn things around.
"We're with each other 10 hours a day. We eat breakfast together, we eat lunch together, we practice together and we eat dinner together. It's just like your brothers and sisters at home. You've got to get on the same page to win."