As reporters huddled around Bruce Weber for what might have been one of his final news conferences as Illinois head coach, a Big Ten tournament official entered the room to say that time had nearly expired.
“Two minutes,” he yelled.
Weber’s team had just lost to Iowa 64-61 in the opening round of the conference tournament. The loss might have spelled the end of his tenure at Illinois, one that reached its peak with an appearance in the national title game in 2005. But in a win-now landscape, 12 losses in his team’s last 14 games blemished his legacy.
“One minute,” the tourney official announced.
Weber’s flushed face, hoarseness and measured pace suggested that the trials of recent months had truly taken a toll. With each query, he tried to maintain a sense of normalcy.
But when asked about the support he’s received throughout his challenges this season, Weber’s eyes welled up, his voice cracked and tears collected on the bottom rim of his eyelids.
“I can’t explain to you how many people have contacted me. I mean, literally thousands. Guys who don’t even know me,” Weber said.
“We’re going to be closing the Illinois locker room,” the Big Ten tournament official announced again.
Weber’s remarks concluded with talk of a meeting with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas. No specifics. A brief smile.
And with that, Weber walked into a room and closed the door, unsure of his fate.
The struggles that plagued his program this season were crippling again Thursday.
The Illini committed 12 turnovers. NBA-bound Meyers Leonard scored a team-high 18 points (9-for-11), but he should have had more, given the number of times his teammates failed to find him.
Brandon Paul, the team’s leading scorer entering the game, recorded four points (2-for-11) in what he called one of the worst performances of his career.
“We just have, I feel, like every piece that a team could possibly need, where we’re just missing that one thing,” Leonard said.
There were missed dunks and layups. There were several bad shots that seemed to follow the same pattern. With the shot clock at Bankers Life Fieldhouse set to expire, the Illini would waste the possession with an NBA-range 3-pointer or an off-balance jump shot.
When Iowa’s Aaron White secured a vital offensive rebound in the final seconds, Illini players looked at one another seeking answers. At one point they were leading with a score of 40-33.
Missed opportunities. They’ve defined the entire season for a team that beat Gonzaga in the nonconference season and Ohio State (ranked fifth at the time) on Jan. 10.
After Thursday’s game, Weber said the gap after that Ohio State victory might have squelched the team’s momentum. The Illini didn’t play for nine days and returned to action with a 54-52 loss at Penn State on Jan. 19. It was the beginning of a 2-12 stretch that will likely lead to the NIT.
“We started out pretty well. We didn’t play pretty basketball, but we were finding ways to win with defense and hustle and togetherness, and won some close games,” Weber said. “I’m sure a lot of people feel maybe the Ohio State game was the turning point, because all of a sudden expectations changed, mind-sets changed. And then I don’t think it was really a good situation after Ohio State to have nine days off.”
Even after the Illini’s title-game appearance in '05, Weber scored some of the top recruits in the Big Ten and the country. Demetri McCamey, Jereme Richmond, Leonard and others provided the Illini with the firepower to compete in the Big Ten and beyond.
But Weber never moved the Illini past the second round of the NCAA tournament after that loss to North Carolina in the national championship game. This season’s difficulties seemed as baffling as any he’s had in recent years. The Big Ten was rebuilding. The Illini appeared to have a promising crew with Leonard, Paul and D.J. Richardson leading the way.
A team that was expected to compete for the Big Ten title, however, finished at the bottom of the league. As a result, negative speculation about Weber’s job status has grown.
“No, not at all. You hear stuff going around campus. People say stuff here and there. We still did what we had to do,” Richardson said about the rumors’ impact on the team.
But the chatter couldn’t have helped this squad as it tried to regain a portion of its swagger while the losses accumulated.
And now, Weber, Illini fans, players and staffers will have to wait for Thomas’ verdict, one that isn't expected to extend his coach’s time in Champaign.
Weber reached the NCAA title game seven years ago. That’s an eternity in today’s college basketball climate. Winning, however, changes the perceptions of a program. Fans and supporters crave more.
And Weber, in the years that followed that magical 2004-05 campaign, couldn’t give them want they wanted.
Only time will tell if he’ll have another opportunity to try.
Weber opened his postgame presser by saying, “I just feel bad for [players] that they didn’t have more success.”
The latter, in high major college basketball, is all that matters.