PORTLAND, Ore.--Now what?
During the darkest moments of Illinois' 76-72 loss to Western Kentucky, Bruce Weber was trying to catch the attention of the referees, so they could better absorb his looks that could kill. Behind him, his staff sat slumped over in their chairs, looking like they'd spent too much time pondering their 401-k's.
Things always look better than they are when you win. And worse than they are when you lose.
The future isn't nearly as grim as the Internet banshees would have you believe. But there is much work to be done if Illinois is going to regain its perch as one of the nation's premier basketball programs.
As I told you before the post-season began, it's all about the sophomores. Seniors Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock did themselves proud, leaving it all on the floor in their final appearances. If Chester Frazier had not been sidelined by an injured right hand, he would have done the same.
And what did that add up to? After being down 17 points, Illinois needed a miracle comeback to make the final score respectable.
Frazier would have made a little difference. More defense and leadership might have helped. But Western Kentucky was the better team in every way as it bounced Illinois from the NCAA tournament. You had to admire the way the Hilltoppers play the game.
Frazier or not, what really hurt was the way Illinois' sophomore core was exposed. Center Mike Tisdale was in over his 7-foot-1 head, going scoreless in 19 foul-prone minutes. And guard Demetri McCamey was skittery, too, going 0 for 5 from three-point range and committing four turnovers.
The 235-pound Tisdale needs to spend as much time with a knife and fork as he does in the gym this off-season to reach his goal of 260 pounds. McCamey, on the other hand, needs to listen to Weber's advice to drop a couple of pounds and increase his stamina.
If Tisdale and McCamey work at it, they and Mike Davis, Illinois' other sophomore starter, have a chance to accomplish a lot as juniors and seniors.
People are questioning whether Tisdale and McCamey have the mental makeup to take the next step and become tough competitors. They'll have a better chance of doing that with more strength and stamina. Even Illini heroes Brian Cook and Deron Williams needed time to mature.
It's easy to overlook now, amid the gloom and doom of the Western Kentucky disaster. But Weber did an excellent job of rebuilding a team that went from 16-19 last to 24-10 this year--with a group of gritty seniors and unpolished sophomores.
``It was a good year,'' Weber said through his Hilltopper disappointment. ``You feel sad for Chester. But Calvin came through. Trent played like he never thought he would dream of playing
``The other guys have to learn. We learned something after last year. Now we have to learn something after this year. We set a goal of getting 24 wins and getting in the NCAA, and that's what we did. Next year, we have to shoot a little higehr. But you're going to have to work harder to get there.''
This isn't all about the players, either. Weber knows he needs to do a better job of going to his bench. And next year, he'll have the bodies to do that.
We'll take Weber's word for it that Alex Legion, the ballyhooed transfer from Kentucky, didn't figure things out quickly enough, but some of that's on the coaches. An effective Legion would have been a big help against the Hilltoppers' three-point barrage.
Four excellent recruits also are coming in: Guards D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Joseoph Bertrand, plus forward Tyler Griffey. This class, ranked 10th in the nation by ESPN, should give Weber the best depth he's had at Illinois.
Despite the Western Kentucky debacle, Weber remains a top-notch coach. And now that he's making strides in recruiting, Illinois has a chance to keep moving up in the world. If Weber keeps pushing his players--and himself.