No NIT — but plenty to do
CHAMPAIGN — Late Sunday night, the Illinois basketball team joined with interim coach Jerrance Howard and mapped out the future.
First, the details.
All 14 players were in attendance. The biggest message: you're still in school, so go to class. Today and Tuesday are off days. Weightlifting and open gym start Wednesday. Offseason workouts begin March 26 — the week after spring break.
"I told them, 'We've got to refocus,' " Howard said.
These are the first steps into an uncertain future for Illinois basketball. It's a future without Bruce Weber, who was fired Friday after nine seasons.
And it begins without an appearance in the postseason. Illinois (17-15) wasn't among the 32 teams selected for the NIT on Sunday.
Initially, players were torn on the NIT. Some, like senior Sam Maniscalco, were all-in; others had no motivation to play in the lesser tournament.
Players took the weekend away from the game — Mike Shaw went home to Chicago, Maniscalco went to Peoria, for example — and calmer heads prevailed. Since Friday more of the roster had warmed up to the idea of playing in the NIT.
It would have given them one more chance to put a positive spin on a historic collapse. Illinois lost 12 of 14 games to close the season.
Instead, the Illini won't play in a postseason tournament of any kind for the second time in five seasons. Illinois also missed everything in 2007-08 after a 16-19 finish. Athletic director Mike Thomas made the decision not to pursue a bid in the CBI or collegeinsider.com tournaments.
The Big Ten placed six teams in the NCAA tournament. There are three teams in the NIT — No. 4 Northwestern, No. 6 Minnesota and No. 7 Iowa.
Illini coaches speculated an NIT berth would come down to Illinois or Iowa. In that regard, Iowa's win against Illinois in the Big Ten tournament might have served as an NIT play-in game. The NIT hasn't included four teams from the Big Ten since 1993.
"For our returning players, this should serve as motivation heading into the offseason so we don't feel this way next year on Selection Sunday," Howard said in a statement.
Now it's on to the next phase.
As interim coach, Howard said, his days would begin at 6 a.m. and not end until 9 p.m. Work ethic never was an issue for the Illinois staff.
Associates Wayne McClain, his mentor, and Jay Price are aiding Howard. Weber has been in communication with words of advice, as well. Maniscalco, a fifth-year senior, also has proven to be an asset bringing the team together — despite this being the end of his college career.
"I would hire him in a heartbeat," Howard said of Maniscalco, who aspires to one day pursue a coaching career.
Weber also has been in touch with players. He figures to have an ongoing dialogue with Meyers Leonard, for example, about his upcoming decision regarding the NBA draft. The 7-foot-1 sophomore would be the centerpiece of the next roster if he returns or a potential lottery pick if he declares.
On Saturday, one day after an emotional farewell address at Illinois, Weber traveled back to the Big Ten tournament. He said the reception was "tremendous." Weber also spoke with Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany in Indianapolis.
The search for his replacement continues. And the Illini are moving forward, as well.