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.

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Bear8287 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 12:03 am

Illinois (17-16) wasn't among the 32 teams selected for the National Invitational Tournament on Sunday.

I'm willing to cut Paul some slack here after this season. I really do enjoy Paul's writing and I think that he's very deserving of his award. Afterall, if we didn't have Paul we might have to rely on Loren for Illini men's basketball reporting...

Hopefully, the players, coaches and fans can just put this season behind us now and look forward towards a brighter future. It's unfortunate that this season went the way that it did but I believe that brighter days are ahead for the Illini (and Bruce Weber wherever he lands).

cevans wrote on March 12, 2012 at 12:03 am

Really relieved  they arent playing in the NIT, they dont deserve to play in it, especially when some of them stressed they wouldnt really want to anyways. This season was a total diseaster and Im really embarrased to call myself an Illini fan. Im just glad in that the losing ways dont have to continue to happen for this season at least. I really hope Thomas gets a great coach that will do more than just stand and YELL and YELL and Some More Yelling........So glad Bruce is gone and maybe we'll get a coach who holds his players accountable for their poor play. Really hoping I can regain my positive attitude about Illini Sports 

illinigator wrote on March 12, 2012 at 9:03 am

First of all, I'll be an Illini fan to the day I die no matter how disapointing they they are.  In my 55 years of being an Illini fan, this team had to be the worse ball handling, passing, shooting and selfish team I can remember since the the 60's scandal.  I am not a hater or lover of Coach Weber, but I respect him as a person and his position of being a coach of an Illinois team.  That said, I don't blame him for this years mess.  We all were excited when he recruited Paul, Richardson, Leonard,Griffey ans this new freshmen group.  These were all better than average high school players.  In recruiting it's always agamble unless you get MD all american athletes.  How many of these players have Illinois gotten in the past 20 years.  The Kansas, North Carolina, Dukes,Big East, Ohio State and Kentuck's, get 2/3 of these players.  Illinois might have been in that group if Daron Williams stayed another year and helped them back to the final four or even the National Championship.  Ig Gordon and Smith were together at Illinois could have been a big differance in recruiting.  Illinois hasn't been consistant enough to land a major recruit.

This team seemed to be more about me than the overall success of the team.  The last game against Iowa Leonard got the ball 1 time from Paul, Richardson Griffey, Abrams and the rest of the team in the last 9 minutes of the game.  Paul was so selfish that he past up several chances to get the ball to Leonard.  I think Paul is playing for an NBA chance he forgets about other players on the team.  I hope Leonard comes back next year, but why should he.  Guards that can the ball inside or drive and pass instead of wild shots on their drives.  Richardson stand in a corner looking for a 3 point shot.  That he isn't making.  What will Illinois do next year if Leonard leaves?  Who will rebound or play middle defense and alter shots like he did.  Name a big man on this roster who can score, rebound' play defense and not foul out.  I can't see any kind of inside game next year and if the rest of the team rebounds like they did this year, it will be a disaster.  Weber should be glad he is leaving.  The only player that lived up to his high school hype has been Leonard.  I think the worse thing that happened was Paul's 42 points against Ohio State.  After that game paul became more of an individual player and less a team player, which changed the chemistry of the team.  I hope he has learned something from this year?  Maybe, Illinois could go to Jr College and find a decent big man who can score and rebound.  because, Egnu isn't the answer.strasavour,

JDG613 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 11:03 am

VERY well put.  Loyalty, regardless of the season's results, is what constitutes a true fan.  Fortunately, most Illini fans fit that definition.

peterborich wrote on March 12, 2012 at 1:03 am

Paul's reference to a 17-16 record was Freudian slip.  He knows that if we did get invited to the n

NIT we would have  been one and done

jules61 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 1:03 am

If you are too embarassed to call yourself and Illini fan, then don't.  Move on. The true fans treat this like a marriage, for better or for worse.  You are clearly only for the better which does not always happen with any team.  Move on.  Go be half a fan with some other team.

cevans wrote on March 12, 2012 at 9:03 am

Jules61,


I was simply saying that as an Illini fan I was embarrased of this past season and was embarrased of how things went overall. So, to say that Im not a true fan cracks me up in the sense that you call yourself a true fan but then again your comments basically spell it out that you as a "true fan" are perectly fine with a crappy season and arent even a little embarrarsed by the horrible play that Illini put on for the last 2 months. So, yeah if being embarrased is not being a true fan, I guess being perfectly fine with a crappy season, fired head coach, no post season play, etc..........I guess that makes you the Illini's #1 TRUE FAN then. Get Serious jules61, because its fans like you that will always be fine with a crappy season and always question people on their status as a true fan because they are frustrated with how things go on. I have always been an Illini fan and always will be no matter how bad the season is and my comments are no different at all compaired to what players and coaches had said about the season either, So jules61 do the players and assistant coaches need to find a new team as well? 

JDG613 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 11:03 am

Embarrassed?  No....  Disappointed?  Absolutely!!!  It was very frustrating to watch this team be SO inconsistent.  Beat Ohio State one week, lost to Penn State the next.  Beat Michigan State one week, lose to Nebraska the next.  They obviously had the ability....just couldn't seem to keep it all together.


But again, regardless of the outcome, a true fan will stick with the team.


Then again, maybe I don't know much....I've been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan since I was young.....

cevans wrote on March 12, 2012 at 9:03 am

Jules61,


I was simply saying that as an Illini fan I was embarrased of this past season and was embarrased of how things went overall. So, to say that Im not a true fan cracks me up in the sense that you call yourself a true fan but then again your comments basically spell it out that you as a "true fan" are perectly fine with a crappy season and arent even a little embarrarsed by the horrible play that Illini put on for the last 2 months. So, yeah if being embarrased is not being a true fan, I guess being perfectly fine with a crappy season, fired head coach, no post season play, etc..........I guess that makes you the Illini's #1 TRUE FAN then. Get Serious jules61, because its fans like you that will always be fine with a crappy season and always question people on their status as a true fan because they are frustrated with how things go on. I have always been an Illini fan and always will be no matter how bad the season is and my comments are no different at all compaired to what players and coaches had said about the season either, So jules61 do the players and assistant coaches need to find a new team as well? 

Dann001 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 3:03 am

Okay, okay already, Bruce is gone, it's over! Let's stop beating each other up over our beliefs and just wish for the best to come!

bluehavana wrote on March 12, 2012 at 4:03 am

Plenty to do says the headline...

If I could give three pieces of advice to the Illini players it would be 1) Make the weight room your second home over the summer,  2) Develop a steady confidence in shot making inside the 3 point arc, and 3) Work with coaches to measurably improve individual ball handling skills.

Ohio State and Michigan State battled for the B1G title Sunday with rosters filled with tough bodied athletes willing to work in traffic and battle on the boards.  I look forward to a renewed Illini team showing similar traits, hopefully as early as 2012-2013.

The page has been turned.  Let's (fans and players) make the story on the next page one with renewed talent and enthusiasm for our team.

 

Green Shirt wrote on March 12, 2012 at 7:03 am

I agree with your points, just not the same order.  Ball handling skills were the Achilles Heal of this team. They were probably the worst passing team I have ever seen.  It was the lack of these skills that made it difficult to get the ball inside and the lack of the "inside-out" play that resulted in fewer open shots from the outside.  Unfortunately, while they may be able to improve on their dribbling and passing techniques, I am not sure they can do anything (except play a lot of basketball) to improve upon their "court vision". 

illinigator wrote on March 12, 2012 at 10:03 am

I agree with you 100%.  This team maybe even worse next year, unless a big man can appear out of nowhere, because Egnu is not a big Ten center.  my vote for the next coach is Steve Alford. wouldn't that piss off Indiana and Iowa when he is a success at Illinois.  He also could recruit players out of the Southwestern states and Indiana.  Look what he has done for Mexico this year.

allillini wrote on March 12, 2012 at 11:03 am

I agree totally with this post. The lack of ball handling skills, passing  and penetrating skills, inabilty to get a free throw shot, and a general lack of what is needed to be a good team or a desire to do so were all what led to a major downfall. I am not sure how much Weber is at fault for recruiting players that could not do any of these things, but I am pretty sure he did not instruct them to never drive or get the ball to a center shooting close to 70 %. I think he finally paid the price for their inabilities, but I also think some of the other recruiters need to take some of the fault for getting guys with very little basketball instinct. Most of the other teams in the Big Ten have freshman that already hustle for loose balls, are in position to rebound, block out, etc. There is no reason our players should not be doing the same too. It is pretty easy to spot players with those natural instincts ( even in a high school game) Any one see the Austin kid from lanphier as a freshman in high school? He already possed those qualities then. Generally speaking if a guard can't dribble and pass well in high school, then he will definetly not be able to handle it at this level ( so do not recruit him ). I am anxious about next year, but I do not see how any coach can get some of these guys to improve on ball handling. Without Leonard they may be in for real trouble, with him and a great coach and at least one more gusrd to get the ball in the lane we might be okay.

blmillini wrote on March 12, 2012 at 10:03 am

I wish the word hadn't come out about players not wanting to play in a lesser tournament.  That is disappointing from a competitive standpoint and the long-term health of the program under these players.  It is also quite selfish when seniors like Sam would like to push it further.  Lastly, this would have been an excellent time for Bruce to talk to these guys about that very topic so they would handle it better, since he has been their mentor... where is the leadership?

Oak Park Illini wrote on March 12, 2012 at 1:03 pm

I'm an Illinois alum ('96 LAS) and I'll always support the teams through thick and thin. But I am glad that we weren't invited to the NIT. Reading the players' body language at the end, I could tell they just wanted to get the season over with. Plus I have to agree with the earlier poster who said that after the 43-point game against Ohio State it seemed as if Brandon Paul gradually became more selfish with his decision-making. Think about it: we had a post player in Myles Leonard that could be unstoppable on most nights and down the stretch there was little effort to feed him the ball in areas where he could do lots of damage. IMHO Leonard needs one more season before jumping to the NBA but I think he's going to this year's draft. (If Paul also goes no big loss, Leonard on the other hand would be a problem because there's really not another true big man to step in). Hopefully the new coach brings in a new system (and adapts it to the personnel) that's exciting to the players and fans.


GO ILLINI!!

illinigator wrote on March 12, 2012 at 2:03 pm

I don't know where a true center is to be gotten.  I think it could be a tough job for a new coach to come into.  I've been a high school coach for 25 years and have left a smaller school for a bigger school on a couple occasions.  One was a decent school and we turned it around in 3 years.  I was offered a bigger school, who I knew could be a problem, but I took it anyway.  What a disaster, I was let go after 2 years with my first losing seasons.  I don't think Michigan States coach could have won there.  This was a major set back in my coaching career.  Being fired can be a career ender.  That why I think a lot of Coach's will really think twice before taking over this team.  It could take at least 3 to 4 years to get the program competitive in the B10.  A lack of skill players and a big man could be a disaster for the new coach.  I do believe Leonard could use another year, but why should he with players that he played with this year.  He never got to use his talent this year, except for a couple of games.  Paul will not be picked in the first 2 rounds until he picks up the concept of being a team player.  Richardson if he finds his shot again, might be a decent player overseas. 

goillini8117 wrote on March 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm

Gator, I don't know what you have against Egwu (not Egnu) but I feel like you are kind of off-base here.  He is a freshman.  Yes, he is a foul machine (so was Leonard his freshman year).  In fact, Ewu and Leonard had very similar freshman years.  Egwu played 9.8 min a game (Leonard 8.2).  Egwu averaged about 2 pts a game (Leonard the same), 1.5 rebounds a game (Leonard about the same, 1.2), 0.6 blocks (Leonard 0.4).  These are virtually the same stats across the board.  Look how ML improved during the offseason.  I believe ML is a little more athletic, but Egwu is smarter and has a better motor.  Egwu never pouted when things weren't going his way and he never jawed at the refs.  ML has way better hands at this point, but that was also something vastly improved during the offseason.  I think Egwu will be a great center with a little time and I think you should not write him off after one season.