As more people saw them play, the votes grew. First 12, then 15, 20, 64, 108, 115.
This week, with a 15-3 record, the Illini cracked the AP Top 25 with 159 votes.
Prior to last season, Coach Weber, who moved to Illinois from SIU in 2003, had led his teams to the NCAA tourney each year. His 2004-05 team reached the National Championship and finished the season at 37-2.
But last season, facing one of the toughest schedules in the Big Ten, the Illini went 13-18. Illinois led or was tied at halftime in 12 of those losses and led during the second half in 10 of the losses. The Illini finished 3-13 in games decided by less than nine points.
Despite the close losses, Coach Weber's club kept competing, winning five of its last seven games of the season. And at the Big Ten tourney, the Illini became the first No. 10 seed in the tournament's history to advance to the title game.
Still, the criticism rained down. As my grandfather used to say, "No one ever kicks a dead dog."
"The longer you're in coaching, (the criticism) is part of it,'' Weber said in this story yesterday, "even more nowadays with the Internet, bloggers and call-in radio shows. There are people with opinions but not faces. It's easy to criticize. I'm not better this year than last year.
You hear coaches say the reason they get out of coaching is the losses are always tough. They get harder to deal with. You don't enjoy the wins as much. The wins become a survival thing. Once you go through it, you realize it.''