Illinois finished 21-15 on the year and had two victories in the NIT Tournament. But no one was satisfied. Coach Bruce Weber discussed the up and down nature of his most recent team.
"You can look at this season in a lot of different lights. At times we were exciting, at times we were definitely inconsistent. It added up at the end to a little bit of disappointment.
"We were a little bit off, a few things missing. A lack of toughness is a big thing. It could have made a big difference. A few more guys who can create and make plays. Those are things that would help."
Weber knew his team lacked leadership. Super leader Chester Frazier had graduated, and no one was in position to replace him. He also knew his upperclassmen had fragile egos. Even small failures could destroy their confidence level.
He tried to encourage them through positive reinforcement and a degree of freedom on the court.
"All along this season it was an interesting group, a challenging group to deal with. At times I tried to mollycoddle them, try to help them through some things."
It was a big gamble, but it didn't work out like he hoped. The players lost confidence anyway. With the challenge of trying to make the NCAA Tournament foremost in their minds, Weber went back to his former practice regimen late in the season.
Now that three excellent new players plus redshirt Joseph Bertrand will be joining the mix, he hopes a more competitive approach will enhance effort.
"At the end, I just went back to what I believe in. Competitive drills, hardnosed practices, competing in everything we did. I think we made some strides, and that's what we're gonna look at right now. That's how you get tougher.
"Worrying about fragile egos, whether they're gonna break...we have to get after them. It doesn't mean yelling all the time. It just means being demanding of them. They also have to be demanding of themselves to make some strides. That and the competiton from some new guys, and if the freshmen can make some big jumps, it pushes everybody."
Toughness is a big factor with this team. How can Weber improve toughness in players with laid-back personalities?
"One, I hope maturity helps. You're always tougher when you go through things. When a freshman becomes a sophomore, you hope you get tougher going through it. Each time you play a game, hopefully you're improving and are more ready to deal with it.
"But we can do it through competition, through drills. And some of it has got to come from them. They have to compete and push each other. In our individual meetings, that's what I've really emphasized. 'You've got to compete against yourself, push yourself, and along the way you've got to push each other.'
"I told Tyler Griffey, 'Go beat out Mike Davis. That should be your goal. Put the fear into those older guys.' If that happens, those guys are gonna get better and the team is gonna get better. That's the kind of fire we need from some guys."
Illinois has talent, and improvements were evident though painstakingly slow throughout the season. Weber hopes the experiences of this past year will benefit his players.
"I think we have a bright future ahead of us. I think a lot of the inconsistency came from youth and immaturity. Some of the things I talked about early in the season, leadership and defense, I thought we improved in all those areas. But obviously not enough to get to the point where we want it to be as a team, as a program.
"The freshmen had a great taste of it, great experiences. If you watch some of the better players around the country, they make big jumps from their freshman to sophomore years. You've got some talented kids coming in to join."
The Illini are already working out on their own, and small group workouts will begin shortly. The time between now and next fall must be used wisely for there to be significant improvement.
"I think this next six months is gonna be very important. I think we have a chance to be a Top 25 team. To me, that's a no-brainer for next year. But some things are definitely gonna have to change if we're gonna have that consistency to not only get into the Top 25, but to stay there.
"It's gonna start with a lot of competition through the spring and hopefully motivated workouts they have throughout the summer. And in all of that, mental and physical toughness is emphasized. Just making some strides.
"The most important thing is we get in the weight room and get stronger. The workouts (must be) intense and competitive, and we set a great foundation for the summer so we're ready to make a big jump next season."
Another area that must be improved is defense. Weber's teams normally fight for every possession and are relentless. This year's team struggled defensively and was basically helpless when opponents penetrated. That must change, and no doubt Weber will work them until it does.
There will be more depth, so he can afford to sit players who are not competing on the defensive end. He may also choose to employ more of a press. He'll have more athleticism, but translating that into quality play will take awhile.
"We've made some strides in the halfcourt defense. I think we have more to teach than I ever dreamed of. I think it (press) is something we would look at with the athleticism that Jereme (Richmond) brings, Crandall (Head) brings, Meyers (Leonard) brings. Add to the mix of guys we have. You can maybe have a different look with some different guys in there."
What goals for next year does Weber consider realistic?
"Obviously, things have to improve and change to make sure. But I think we can be a Top 25 team if not better. You're still gonna have some very good teams in our league. But you hope a couple close games, maybe another road win, not losing the games at home, now you're competing for the Big 10 Championship.
"Even this year you're right there, to be honest. We're 9-3 and have a chance. The schedule got tougher, but there were some games that could have gone either way. Now we've got to find a way to get those. I hope that comes from a little maturity, a year of experience, adding some guys to it, guys improving. I don't think there's any doubt we can make a big jump.
"Obviously, we'd like to win a championship somewhere. We're gonna have some older guys. I hope that's their goal. It's gonna be our goal as a staff."
The Big 10 will be no picnic. As Weber reminds, the top teams from 2009-10 all expect to be there again next year.
"Purdue's gonna be very good again. Ohio State, I've got to believe Evan (Turner) will leave. But you're still talking (William) Buford, (David) Lighty, (Jon) Diebler, three of the better players. Michigan State will lose (Raymar) Morgan, but it's still a pretty good group. Wisconsin loses some good guards. Minnesota loses a few people. It's still gonna be competitive.
"Again, I think we're right there. We beat Michigan State, and they're in the Final Four. We took Ohio State to double overtime, and they were in the Sweet 16. We competed with Purdue both at home and away. We couldn't find a way to win. They were in the Sweet 16."
Weber talks about the newcomers and things each returnee can do to improve his game in part 2.