URBANA — If the past three months (or longer, depending on your viewpoint) in Illinois basketball weren't unusual enough, Tuesday's annual banquet made it so.
Where to start?
The central figure of the event — former coach Bruce Weber — admitted he initially didn't want to return for the banquet. But the new Kansas State coach said he accepted the invitation because of the players he recruited and coached before being fired March 9.
"I felt it was my obligation to come back for them," said Weber, the Illini coach for nine seasons.
Really, the atmosphere inside the Holiday Inn ballroom summed up the last half-decade of Illinois basketball: never boring, at times uncomfortable and certainly dramatic.
There were several members of the former staff in attendance — Weber, Jerrance Howard, Jay Price and Sean Harrington. Athletic director Mike Thomas and the new staff weren't in attendance.
Awkward? Yes. Understandable? That, too.
The 90th annual banquet again was sponsored by the Champaign-Urbana Kiwanis Club. There were 480 tickets sold.
Tracy Abrams was named Team MVP, as voted on by his teammates. The gutsy lead guard is the first true freshman to win the award.
Cory Bradford was the most recent freshman to be named Team MVP when he won it after his redshirt freshman season in 1998-99. The honor was a telling indicator of Abrams' impact in the locker room.
"To see teammates, brothers, feel that way about me, it's motivation," Abrams said.
Weber said his MVP vote would have gone to freshman Mike Shaw, who played a minor role but maintained a positive attitude, regardless.
"I'm proud of you, Mike," Weber said.
Harrington, the former director of basketball operations, introduced the non-seniors. The former Illini sharpshooter handled the duties in style, lightening the mood.
Weber introduced the two seniors — Sam Maniscalco and Jean "Canada" Selus. And the former coach received a pair of standing ovations from the loyalists — one at the start, one at the close.
Illinois went 210-101 in Weber's nine seasons. In his final season, the Illini started 15-3 before a historic freefall put them at 17-15 and without a postseason berth. Weber has been the coach at Kansas State for just over a week.
"As a staff we gave our heart and soul to this season. Sometimes people try to take your spirit, and that probably happened," Weber said. "But they (the players) are going to come fighting back and we're going to come fighting back."
Weber's goodwill was on display. The coach auctioned off 37 orange ties and raised another $10,000 for Coaches vs. Cancer. He also donated $1,000 for the Eastern Illinois Foodbank on behalf of his former program.
Head coach John Groce earned high marks from the players who were interviewed at the banquet. The current Illini have gone through one week of workouts with Groce and assistants Dustin Ford and Jamall Walker.
"I'm definitely excited about what's ahead of us," said junior Brandon Paul, who won three awards — Matto (most hustle points), Lou Henson Courage (most charges taken) and the Ralf Woods Free Throw Trophy (74.8 percent from the line in Big Ten play).
"I strongly think everybody is going to stay," Abrams added.
And the winners are ...
A list of the major awards handed out during the team’s basketball banquet Tuesday night:
Rebounders Award: Meyers Leonard
Ralf Woods Free Throw: Brandon Paul
Orange Krush 3-Point: D.J. Richardson
Lou Henson Courage: Brandon Paul
Matt Heldman “Matto”: Brandon Paul
Kenny Battle Inspirational: Sam Maniscalco
Sixth Man: Joseph Bertrand
Most Improved Player: Meyers Leonard
Most Valuable Player: Tracy Abrams