That collective yawn that you heard emanating out of Illini Nation on Selection Sunday spoke volumes on where the current path the basketball program has traveled in five short years. Count me amongst the throng of students, alums and fans that could care less about watching Illinois among this year’s NCAA Tournament field. Raise your hand if you’re excited after all the preseason hype, the early season victory over North Carolina and peaking at #12 nationally if you’re excited about backing in, barely, to the Tourney as a nine seed?
The reward for which is a match-up against former Illini coach Lon Kruger. If they survive that, a “showdown” against every Illini’s favorite villain – former coach Bill SelfServing – awaits (or dooms) Illinois. Say what you want about a couple of carpetbaggars like Kruger and Self ; but at this point, I’d take a revolving door of coaches using Illinois as a cheap date while awaiting the availability of the prom queen in exchange for a Top Four seed every year.
Instead, we have nice guy Bruce Weber, someone I’d love to have as a next door neighbor. But clearly not capable of coaching an upper-tier Big Ten program like Illinois. I thought Weber was fantastic coaching Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and the rest of Self’s recruits to within 1:30 seconds of the National Title in 2005. What a brilliant run with that memory of the comeback against Arizona in the frantic All State Arena forever a part of Illini pride. But coaching is also recruiting and gelling your own classes into consistent winners, something Weber has failed mightily to even come close to accomplishing. And yes, while we’re at it, there’s no reason with the fertile recruiting ground in the state that the Illini shouldn’t be a Top 10 team every year. The school is one of only a few where coaches don’t need to travel more than 3 hours by car in any direction to field a loaded team every year.
I’m tired of hearing about the Jon Scheyer’s and Eric Gordan’s who got away, the backyard studs like Derek Rose who never considered Champaign and the uncoachable talents like Demetri McCamey. Regarding the latter, it falls on Self for not getting the best out of McCamey. If you recruit the guy, you better understand what you’re getting and if his high school coach supposedly had questions about his coachability – you pass.
Seven years into the job, Weber is still trying to get out of Self’s shadow, despite once holding a mock funeral for him, and win a tournament game with his own recruits – something he’s yet to do as the Illini have gone 0 for March Madness since 2006. In a way, he may have a shot this weekend. Make no mistake, all would be erased with a win over Kruger AND THEN a victory over top-ranked Kansas. But lose to either and the weight from a loss of patience on the part of Illini Nation will continue to be a burden on Weber’s nice guy shoulders.