CHAMPAIGN — Try as he might, even coach Bruce Weber is having a hard time sounding optimistic.
His University of Illinois basketball team looked and sounded like a group that had been beaten to its knees following Sunday’s regular-season finale, a 70-56 loss at Wisconsin.
They’ve been unable to put the brakes on a six-week collapse that has resulted in a 2-11 record and, in a very short time, will result in the firing of their head coach.
They know it.
Weber knows it.
We all know it.
No wonder that Monday when Weber tried to rally his shredded voice enough to sound like there could be one, final burst reserved for the upcoming Big Ten Conference Men’s Basketball Tournament, he sounded like the least convincing man on earth.
“We have to see if we can muster up enough energy and emotion and maybe get a couple of shots to go down and maybe make a little bit of a run,” he said, sounding as broken and battered as he surely must feel.
In the cold, concrete hallways of the Kohl Center in Madison, Wis., Sunday, his players looked glassy-eyed and confused, all but admitting that the weight of collapse has gutted them, spiritually and, it seems, physically.
I know Athletics Director Mike Thomas has said Illinois would accept an invitation to the NIT, but I wish he would reconsider that position.
This team is in no shape to prolong the season and its fans are in no mood to watch more of what has become a painful sight.
The players will probably say they’d welcome the one-and-done excitement of any postseason tournament, but I have yet to see anyone beyond Brandon Paul who seems as though they would welcome that more than a reprieve from the continued agony of playing on.
Meyers Leonard looks cooked.
D.J. Richardson seems overwhelmed.
Seldom-used bench players like Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde, who Weber has praised for their upbeat attitudes, had no idea this is how their first college season would play out. I’m sure they are shell-shocked.
But Weber is right when he points out that young people are amazingly resilient. By Thursday morning, when Illinois brushes the crust from its eyes to meet Iowa in the opening game of the Big Ten Tournament, there will be a little more spring in their step.
Weber is appealing to his kids to forget all the losing, all the disappointment and all the conjecture about his future. He is asking them to remember only how much they like to play this game, then to channel that into a two-hour onslaught against the Hawkeyes.
“The thing we stressed to our kids is that this is about passion, the love for playing the game, having some pride. It’s a team we did beat (65-54 on Feb. 26) and we played pretty well against them.
“Hopefully we can start over for everybody.”
The 15th annual Big Ten Men’s Basketball Tournament runs Thursday through Sunday in Indianapolis, but there have been changes since the tournament was held there a year ago.
For one thing, the name of the venue has changed. No longer is it called Conseco Fieldhouse. Now it’s Bankers Life Fieldhouse.
This is the fifth year of a five-year agreement with Indianapolis. Next year the tournament will be held at the United Center in Chicago, and it will alternate between Chicago and Indianapolis for four years.
The 2013 and 2015 tournaments will be in Chicago while the 2014 and 2016 tournaments will be in Indianapolis.
… With the addition of Nebraska as the league’s 12th team, the tournament format has changed.
Now, there will be four first-round games played over two sessions on Thursday. Thus the early (10:30 a.m.) start for the tournament’s first game, Illinois vs. Iowa.
The top four teams in the conference standings receive byes and they are No. 1 seed Michigan State, No. 2 Michigan, No. 3 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin.
… Wisconsin has had a first-round bye for 12 consecutive years, the longest active streak in the conference.
… There are 25 Big Ten players who come from the state of Indiana. Leading the way with nine home-state players is Indiana University. Purdue has eight players from Indiana and Michigan State has three.
… Since it began, the Big Ten Tournament has had six different schools win the championship. Ohio State leads with three titles (2007, 2010 and 2011) while Illinois (2003, 2005), Michigan State (1999, 2000) and Wisconsin (2004, 2008) have won twice.