Is Tonight a Must Win for Bruce Weber (And Illinois)?Posted by EJacoby on February 15th, 2012
Evan Jacoby is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @evanjacoby on Twitter.
The Fighting Illini may be playing for more than just their NCAA Tournament lives in the next three weeks. Multiple news outlets continue to speculate that Bruce Weber’s tenure as Illinois head coach may also be on shaky ground. Illinois was ranked in the Top 25 one month ago after knocking off Ohio State at home, and it looked like the team’s young talent was starting to come together. But since that game, the Illini are back in a familiar struggling position, having lost six of their last seven. Pressure continues to mount on Weber to turn this talented team around in a hurry, something he has been unable to do for several consecutive seasons. Tonight’s home game against Purdue is crucial for the coach to put the team in position to make a late-season run.
Illinois won consecutive Big Ten titles in Weber’s first two years at the helm in 2003-04 and 2004-05, and the ’05 team that advanced to the National Championship game before losing a close game to North Carolina was one of the decade’s best teams. But Weber has never been able to build on that initial success and the players that got him to the Final Four were Bill Self’s recruits from the previous regime. Self’s winning percentage from 2000-03 was .765 compared to Weber’s .688 in the nine years since, which includes the Final Four run with a 34-2 team. Since that title game appearance, Weber’s teams are 60-56 in the Big Ten and 2-4 in the NCAA Tournament.
Critics point to the fact that Weber rode the previous coach’s recruits to the Final Four, and he has been unable to bring in big-time talent himself. But over the past two seasons, it’s a much different dynamic. Illinois has had strong recruiting classes, including four top 50 consensus recruits from 2009 and 2010. So this time the fact that Illinois did not make the NCAA Tournament two years ago, and won just one game as a 9-seed last season, is now a reflection that Weber is struggling to win with talent. He also lost Jereme Richmond to the NBA last year after just one season when Richmond was clearly not ready for the league and did not get drafted.
This year, Illinois has completely underachieved in Big Ten play. Junior Brandon Paul scored a career-high 43 points in the win over Ohio State on January 10 and sophomore Meyers Leonard was continuing to develop as a big man with dominant upside. But since that game, Paul has been inconsistent, shooting 40.6% from the field. Leonard continues to flash star potential in certain games, but his averages of 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds in Big Ten play are far from every-night dominance. Illinois sits at 16-9 and 5-7 in the Big Ten, barely clinging to an at-large bid at this point. Tonight at home against a fellow bubble team in Purdue appears to be a must-win if the Illini want to qualify for the Big Dance and let their coach keep his job. Expect the team to play with a sense of urgency tonight, or else changes could be coming by the end of the season.