Illinois coach Bruce Weber admitted Tuesday the season has been trying for him and his players as they attempt to make a miracle run at an NCAA tournament bid by winning the upcoming Big Ten tournament.
Illinois played itself out of a conventional bid in the NCAA tournament in the past month and a half. Since defeating Michigan State on Jan. 31, the Illini have lost eight of their final nine Big Ten games and fell to 6-12 in conference. As the losses have mounted, Weber's job security has been called into question.
"I would like to tell you it hasn't been difficult," said Weber, whose Illinois teams have missed the NCAA tournament twice in eight previous years. "It's been very difficult, overwhelms you at times. This is my life. This is my passion. I love coaching. I love basketball. I love working with kids. That's why I got into it.
"If you want to text me at 3 o'clock, 4 o'clock [in the morning,] I'm probably up. It takes a toll on you. No doubt. During the day, it's my job to help everyone out, whether it's our players. I don't think people realize the toll it's taken on our kids. Their spirit, their mindset, their future, it's taken a toll. That's my biggest priority to help those guys."
Weber is hopeful the Illini (17-14) can turn their season around in this week's Big Ten tournament, despite owning the No. 9 seed. In 2008, Illinois was a No. 10 seed and upset No. 8 Penn State in the first round, No. 2 Purdue in the quarterfinals and No. 6 Minnesota in the semifinals and lost to No. 1 Wisconsin in the championship.
"We did it in '08 with a group that probably wasn't as talented as this" Weber said. "We had a lot of different problems that year."
That Illini team finished 16-19 and didn't make the NCAA tournament.
"In March Madness, everyone can start over, anything can happen, you get on a run," Weber said. "You see around the country from one year to the next a lot of craziness. There's always a surprise team. Why can't that nice story be us? The big thing is you got to go earn it. It's not just going to happen."
Illinois opens the Big Ten tournament with Iowa on Thursday. The Illini defeated Iowa 65-54 in Champaign in their lone meeting this season on Feb. 26. The winner will play Michigan State on Friday.
"We just hope we'll have a great finish here," Weber said. "We can still have some kind of postseason. I think we're going to be in the NIT as far as it looks. There's still opportunities to do something and have something good happen for us."
Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.