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Morrissey: Hard to blame Weber for this

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Illinois belongs in the NCAA tournament as much as a number of teams in the bloated 68-team field. That shrug of a statement says it all about the Illini.

A 19-13 record earned them a ninth seed and a game against eighth-seeded UNLV and former Illinois coach Lon Kruger. Do you know what a ninth seed says about the Illini? That this season should have been so much more. That a listless team is physically skilled enough but not mentally tough enough.

And that somebody up there ­really, really likes them.

What do you root for if you’re a proud resident of the state of Illinois? That the Illini suddenly go on a run and make a huge impact in the NCAA tournament? Or that, in a merciful act, they go out quickly and make this season go away?

There’s talent and then there’s that thing that drives the engine. Call it whatever you want — heart, desire, fire — but Illinois hasn’t had it all season. It has players with ability and no leadership skills. It’s a maddening combination.

A lot of people have jumped on Illini coach Bruce Weber for a disappointing season, but short of ­putting on a uniform and diving for a loose ball, I’m not sure what he can do to inject intensity into his sleepy team. He has tried everything, including pulling point guard Demetri McCamey out of the starting lineup. He’d have an easier time squeezing Gatorade from a rock than getting McCamey to play with emotion on a consistent basis.

Perhaps draft can inspire Demetri

I’m preaching to the choir here, with Weber the scratchy voiced tenor: Start recruiting skilled players who care only about winning. If that means passing on a star player from the Chicago area whom everyone else is recruiting, so be it. When you hear a recruit’s high school coach say he has had trouble lighting a fire under the kid, consider it a very bad sign. And run.

The most galling thing about the McCamey situation is that there’s still talk he’ll be a first-round NBA pick. Maybe it will get his attention in the tournament. But if that’s what it takes to finally motivate him, it’s nothing less than an indictment.

If you’ve watched the Illini regularly this season, you know the source of my frustration. I have no dog in this fight, though if I did, I’d be partial to the Terriers of Boston University, on general principle. But I believe hard work and consistency should be rewarded. A person who was near the edge emotionally shouldn’t have been anywhere near the up-and-down Illinois this season.

It’s not as if the Big Ten were a juggernaut in 2011. It’s not as if the Illini were overmatched physically during conference play. Other than Ohio State and Purdue, there were no dominant teams. That made it a matter of who wanted it the most. Illinois wanted it as much as a 9-9 conference record suggests it did.

The good news for the Big Ten was that the Illini got off the bubble all the way to a ninth seed. The good news/bad news is that they’re a ninth seed with fifth-seed-or-higher talent.

The best news for the conference is that Ohio State received the No. 1 seed overall and has an excellent chance of winning the ­national championship. The Buckeyes should be fairly rested going into their opener against the winner of Texas-San Antonio and Alabama State. They beat unremarkable Penn State in the Big Ten tournament title game Sunday. But say this about the Nittany Lions: they showed remarkable resolve getting to the championship game.

Buckeyes have the drive

Ohio State is extremely talented and driven. Watch how hard Jared Sullinger works the boards and how hard freshman Aaron Craft works on defense, and you’ll never mistake them for Illini.

I’m sure all the variables the selection committee considers when it makes decisions ultimately favored Illinois. The eye test even worked with the Illini, provided you were watching the right game on the right night. But they could look strong one game and ­comatose the next.

There should be no beefs with the top seeds — Ohio State, Kansas, Pitt and Duke. Duke might not have been a No. 1 seed going into the ACC tournament, but it left as one after pounding North Carolina in the championship game. The Blue Devils are easy to hate and hard to beat.

The rest of the seeding led to the normal amount of complaints from schools that didn’t make it and from schools that believed they should have received higher seeds. Shouldn’t Colorado have made the tournament? How about St. Mary’s?

Did Utah State, with a 30-3 record, deserve better than a 12th seed?

And how did Illinois get in the tournament?

Good question. Very good ­question.

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