Weber’s look said it all

By Lucas Deal

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It’s a look that will stick with me forever.

Sitting alone, dejected with his hands on his face, slowly reading through the box score. He looks like a beaten man, like this game – the game he has given his life to – has stolen his spirit from him.

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He doesn’t want to talk; he’d rather just go home. It’s not that he’s angry and it’s not entirely because he’s disappointed, he just feels like tonight was the night the good guys were finally supposed to win one.

In a year that has been so down, this night – this game – was supposed to be his ray of light. Now, as he skims through the final box score of yet another win that slipped away, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber simply doesn’t have anything left.

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    His hands are on his face; his heart’s in his stomach and the weight of the Illini program is on his back. After a season like this, it’s just too much.

    You can see it all in that look.

    I just feel so bad for our kids because we’ve been through so much,” Weber said after Illinois’ heartbreaking 54-52 loss to Virginia Tech in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. “With all the problems we’ve had, (the team) could have let the season roll over them but they didn’t.”

    While Illinois final record of 23-11 will pale in comparison to the team’s success in recent years, it will never truly reflect the heart and resiliency the team showed.

    There were the brushes with the law, the DUI charges, the car accident and the endless string of injuries that ravaged Weber’s roster and left him with only eight regular players for the team’s final eight games.

    The Illini finished those games 5-3.

    Looking back, people will think the Illini simply couldn’t hack it, that they’re potential never quite meshed with their actual performance.

    In a way, that’s true. Illinois’ offense on Friday was a far cry from the vision Weber had for it month’s earlier. They were slow, unable to get into the lane and terribly mediocre from the perimeter. They rarely got to the free-throw line and even when they did they weren’t very successful. They defended well and could rebound, but the lack of a genuine scoring presence seemed to haunt them all season.

    After Friday’s loss, News-Gazette columnist Loren Tate told me he was actually surprised the Illini played as well as they did considering the Hokies had superior talent at all five positions.

    It was an idea I hadn’t thought about before, but couldn’t help but agree with.

    This Illini team had good players, but it really lacked the overall talent of past Illini teams.

    There were no dynamic scorers or flashy shooters or ultra-athletic wing players – and even if there were, injuries and fatigue never let them show their true colors.

    And yet, Weber’s Illini still managed to win 23 games anyway.

    They couldn’t outrun or outscore anybody, but they went out and gritted their teeth and competed. They played more on adrenaline than anything. All season long, through thick and thin, no matter what the adversity, they competed.

    On Friday night, Weber thought his team would finally catch its break. Things were promising throughout but the Illini just could not hold on.

    You could see that hurt in Weber’s face. That look – that expression of complete helplessness – in a season that has been so hard, it was the first time Weber appeared to have really felt that pain.

    He just sat there: hands on his face, heart in his stomach and the weight of the Illini basketball program on his back.

    More than anything else, that’s what I’ll remember.