INDIANAPOLIS — As he answered a few final questions from media in the Illinois locker room, Bruce Weber had the makings of tears in his eyes.
He was able to hold them in this time. But the idea these are the final days of his career at Illinois had washed over the coach.
The long, grueling demise of this Illinois basketball season may have ended with a 64-61 loss to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. It was an inglorious end to a lost season.
And the end of the Weber era at Illinois probably is coming, as well. Athletic director Mike Thomas and Weber are expected to meet Friday, according to a source. Weber left the locker room in a hurry after Thursday's game. The Illini players later returned to C-U.
"I don't know. I don't even know if we'll be in the NIT, to be honest," Weber said when asked about the speculation surrounding his job status. "So I don't know anything."
Illinois (17-15) has lost 12 of 14 games after falling to Iowa (17-15). Thursday's loss guaranteed the Illini would miss the NCAA tournament for the third time in five years.
Weber said earlier in the week he expected to be fired after his ninth season went south in a 1-6 February; it was simply a matter of when. He was hoping for one final push in the Big Ten tournament.
An NIT appearance is in doubt. Weber said Thursday the Illini are on the bubble for the NIT. Given the likely coaching change and a roster worn down from the past six weeks, Illinois also could suggest to the NIT committee, "Thanks, but we're OK if you find somebody else."
Some players, like fifth-year senior Sam Maniscalco, want to continue to play as long as they are allowed. Others are done, done, done after the heavy drama that hit hard in February and March.
"The NIT, if that's what we have to do, we'll go try to win some games there and try to win a championship," said D.J. Richardson (11 points).
On the topic of whether he would want to coach in the NIT, Weber said, "I don't even think that should be a question. This is my team. These are my players. It's what I do (coach)."
Really, not much was surprising about how Thursday's game unfolded.
The Illini built a seven-point lead but didn't have the spirit to withstand an opponent's run. There seemed to be fewer trips to the free throw line (zero) than good passes. The best option on offense — big man Meyers Leonard — was ignored at critical times. He wasn't afforded a shot attempt in the final nine minutes of what could be his final game at Illinois.
"Whenever we went to what Coach said on offense instead of doing our own thing, it seemed to work," said Leonard (18 points).
"We were out there making the turnovers. Coach is doing a good job of coaching," said Richardson. "We've just got to do a better job out there on the court."
The whole thing seemed inevitable. Still, the emotions afterward were thick.
Assistant coach Jerrance Howard shook his head as he left the court. The other staffers sat solemnly in a training room. Weber left the locker room briskly. The scenario reminded of Jolette Law's final game one week earlier in the same arena. The UI women's coach lost Thursday, hurried from the locker room and was fired the next day.
Over the final two months, the emotions of the coaches seemed to weigh on the players, several of whom broke down in games (at Nebraska) or in private meetings (in the coaches office). And there were myriad reasons why the mood got so emotional, even while a handsome buyout of $3.9 million was in the waiting.
For one, Weber genuinely bonded with this group of players.
"Characterwise," he said, it was the best bunch he's coached in nine seasons at Illinois.
Two, in his 30-plus years of coaching, Weber rarely has failed. He won often at Purdue, SIU and early in his nine-year stay at Illinois. This losing — and the critics who came with it — was new and unsettling.
But the part that really has bothered him was how he didn't go down his way.
Despite watching Brandon Paul shoot 2 of 11 and commit seven turnovers, Weber kept him in the game until less than one minute remained. Despite Shaun Pruitt's locker-room antics, Weber kept him on the roster. Despite the Jereme Richmond saga, Weber felt he could help the talented forward until the final days of his one-year stay.
Weber never would have stood for those episodes in previous stops at Purdue and SIU. It was as if the coach was held hostage by his own anxiety — "Coaching not to lose," as he put it.
"It's just like life. There's great moments in life and there's moments that aren't so good, and every day you've got to approach life with a positive attitude," he said. "If you just go into a pity party for yourself, nothing's going to happen."
For the second straight year, Illinois blew a second-half lead and bowed out of the Big Ten tournament after one game. Last year there was a locker-room scuffle between Paul and Richmond. This year? More tears, as the proud coach took questions from media.
"If I'm the coach at Illinois, I'll coach every day like I always do," Weber said. "I think we're a bubble team for the NIT. We just have to see how things unfold. For the kids' sake, I would like something positive."
It seems the most cathartic step — for the program and for the head coach — would be a step in a different direction. A basketball marriage that needs a break probably will get one.
"Everybody was a little emotional (in the postgame locker room). Everybody's a little hurt," freshman guard Tracy Abrams said. "We just didn't have it. I don't know what it was."