Without leadership, Illinois hopes for Tournament run slim

Saturday’s press conference began like any other. The Illini dropped another winnable game on the road, and the opposing coach and players came to face the media (in this instance, it was Northwestern coach Bill Carmody flanked by players Jeremy Nash and Drew Crawford). When the questions for these three were exhausted, we were told Bruce Weber would be right in.

This room was cramped, hot and pretty uncomfortable (if that makes me a diva, I don’t care). Minutes ticked away like hours. I listened to another guy in the room tell a story about another coach (who shall remain nameless) who, after a disappointing loss, took off without facing the media as they cluelessly waited for at least a half hour. He audibly wondered if Weber was going to do the same thing. Others in the room may have thought it as well.

What seemed like three hours later, Weber walked in and slowly ambled to the table to sit. I can’t describe his disposition at that moment in any word other than “sad.” This was the leader of a very talented and equally under-performing basketball team, and he was completely out of answers.

So what did Weber do? He put the players on the bus and sent them away. He saw that they weren’t talking to each other in the locker room, so he banned them from talking to any media.

That ban lasted less than 48 hours. During those hours, the Illini players held a players-only meeting at Ubben on Sunday. What exactly was said in that meeting, we don’t know. Weber doesn’t even know. Only the players know; they realized it was necessary.

Why was the meeting called in the first place? Well, let me be one of the first to call this team what it has been thus far: a giant tease. You know exactly what I mean by the collegiate meaning of “tease”. Regardless of your gender, we all have been teased at one point or another.

Let me break it down: the 2009-10 Illini men’s basketball team is exactly like a beautiful girl (or, for the ladies, a hot dude). You’ve always had a thing for this person and you think this person might have a thing for you. Maybe one night this person let something slip when he or she was drinking, but he or she knows it and backs off either that night or the next day.

Yet that person is still around, you continue to cross paths with them, and you’re still thinking about them. You want to get that person, but he or she won’t allow it. You know you’d enjoy it, that person secretly knows they’d enjoy it; yet that person, for whatever reason, can’t allow themselves to let the pieces be put together. The Illini are that tease.

The fans know all about the talent on the floor. They know Mike Tisdale has the ability to put up 30 on any given night. They know Demetri McCamey could very well be First Team All-Big Ten. They know any game Mike Davis doesn’t have a double-double is a slight disappointment. They know Brandon Paul has shown flashes of being the best offensive weapon on the team. They know D.J. Richardson might be the Illini’s best all-around player already.

They see Bill Cole playing Robbie Hummel better than almost anyone else. They see Dominique Keller putting the entire team on his shoulders against Gonzaga and almost willing them to victory. They see Jeff Jordan breaking down defenders and easily getting into the paint. They see Tyler Griffey breaking out with an array of offensive weapons at Michigan State.

Yet you’ll notice — none of these performances coincide with the others. It’s always two or three guys who play well, not six or seven. The Illini are talented, but they’re not talented to a level where a few of their main guys can have lackluster showings and the team can still beat a good squad. It doesn’t happen. It’s a tease.

Check the record. I believe it’s 12-8.

Against good competition, when has the entire team played well? The second half at home against Clemson. At home against Northwestern. The second half against Gonzaga. The first half against Purdue.

That’s it. That’s the list.

That fact is bothersome enough. Will this secretive team meeting turn anything around? If not, will next year be any different? I’ve seen both Meyers Leonard and Jereme Richmond play — as talented as they are, neither is tremendously vocal and both are, frequently, more than willing to defer to their far less-talented teammates.

But those guys are another columnist’s issue. As for this year, the Illini are flirting with two things: 1) not making the NCAA Tournament, and 2) being one of the most disappointing Illinois teams in the past 15 years.

On this week’s episode of “The Journey,” a weekly show on Big Ten Network, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo seemed to subconsciously sum up Illinois’ problem while talking about his own team: “I think anybody would tell you that coaches are always trying to make guys leaders. Very seldom do you make a guy a leader. It’s hard to make somebody not afraid of his own voice.”

Somebody on this team better shake that fear, or there will be absolutely no dancing in March.

Read your poster, Illini. Rise up.

Rich Mayor is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]