On Bruce Weber, Winning Ugly, and Program Health
It is tough to separate the micro and macro criticisms of Illinois. One tough game doesn't mean a season is lost, one tough season doesn't mean a program has fallen off a cliff. But by the same token, winning 20 games a year and making an NCAA tournament doesn't mean your program is healthy.
I say this because we have before us an Illinois team that is 14-3, with two of those losses coming against No. 17 UNLV and No. 6 Missouri. Despite that the calls for Bruce Weber's head are about as loud as I have ever heard them. These last two wins have shown us a team that is flawed but unquestionably tough, full of young talent but also raw and error prone. Winning in the Big Ten is never easy, no matter what we think at the beginning of the year, so getting victories, albeit close, should be celebrated. Winning those close games could no doubt pay dividends as the season progresses and the freshman become more polished, and the team will no doubt be better for it. This season.
Still, the overall health of a program is more than just the wins and the losses. And for someone like Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas much more than that must be considered. As fans pulling out wins against Northwestern and Nebraska are absolutely good things. But it certainly doesn't give anyone confidence that Illinois will be threatening for a Big Ten title this year, or even next year.
If you are going to consider yourself a basketball power, a name program that will both draw recruits and the respect of the common fan, you have to back that up with more than just the bare minimum. Making the NCAA tournament should be a given, especially with the number of teams that punch their ticket now every March, and given how strong the strong the Big Ten is as a whole. Illinois should be an annual threat for the Big Ten title, and an annual threat for the Sweet Sixteen, but Illinois hasn't had either since 2004/2005. Probably too long given the 20 years leading up to that point. I think that those demands are completely reasonable for the Illinois program.
From 1980 to 2005, Illinois was, at the very least, always nationally relevant. The Illini made the Sweet Sixteen or better eight times in those 25 years, and took home some form of a Big Ten championship seven times as well. They missed the NCAA tournament just five times. All of this while playing for several years under a cloud of NCAA investigations.
This is the seventh season since the 2004/05 run to the Championship game. In that period we have gone to no Sweet Sixteens (making the round of 32 twice) won no Big Ten championships and even missed the tournament twice. It has been as low a period in Illinois basketball dating back to Lou Henson's final few seasons in Champaign. In fact this will
Given all of that, I don't think it is unreasonable to say that if the Illini do not advance to the Sweet Sixteen or win a Big Ten title in the next two years, there should be a change made. And if they fail to make the tournament, this year, the change should be made immediately.
Illinois is a fertile state for basketball recruits, it has a huge alumni base to call upon for donations, and it has very dedicated students and local fans alike that even during these down years have still given the Assembly Hall healthy attendance numbers. It is an attractive job for all of these reasons, and administration and fans should demand a corresponding level of quality from their basketball team.
Ron Guenther was, if nothing else, an Athletic Director who valued loyalty. There is a reason for that. The two previous basketball coaches hired brought great recruiting classes, Big Ten championships, and each left for a better job after just three years. Had things gone a little differently, Bruce Weber could have left to take the Purdue head coaching job, or perhaps any of the other calls he must have received in 2005 and 2006. Weber stayed, and Guenther was understandingly loyal to his basketball coach.
Things have changed though now in the athletic department, and if things don't change soon on the basketball court, Illinois could be looking for yet another new coach.
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