…or, like Wile E. Coyote, have they already gone over the cliff but have yet to realize it? Since our last entry on the topic, Bruce Weber’s Illini have dropped three straight. Three straight close games, two of which came down to the final play of regulation and included some pretty terrible calls by the officials. But that’s three losses, which drops them out of any aspirations for the conference title and begins to put NCAA tourney hopes on thin ice. Realistically you wanted to win two out of the last three if you’re for real.
But these Illini are what they are – a pretty tough defensive team (though not elite) prone to long futile offensive lapses. They have some good athletes and good role-players, but at certain positions lack enough skill or talent to put them into contention for the Big 10 and deep tourney runs. This has been the case for the majority of Bruce Weber’s tenure. According to Illini beat writer Paul Klee, in the years AD (After Dee) the Illini are .500 in conference play: 48-48.
That’s not good enough for Illini fans.
My brother (sometimes known as the Rube) posted a couple of long rants on the last blog entry. They are quite entertaining and offer a good deal of insight. The Rube was a member of the Rebounders’ Club for years until quite recently, attended practices and interacted with players and coaches more than most fans. He opines what most of us believe: Coach Weber works as hard as any coach in the nation, runs a clean program, cares for his players intensely, and is a good and decent man. But his teams have not executed well enough and won enough. After several long and heated discussions, here are our three main points:
- Too Stubborn – Coach Weber has stayed true to the Gene Keady philosophy of tough, hard-nosed basketball. No problems there. But his refusal to adapt the motion system of offense, to incorporate other defenses, to play up-tempo, to use his bench when thought to be a strength. All of these factors indicate a Coach too set in his ways to adapt to his players’ strengths and weaknesses. Every coach should believe in their system, but a great coach can adjust and improvise when needed. The Illini have become so predictable that they’re the easiest team in the Big 10 to prepare for, the easiest to gameplan against.
- Bad Offense – Unless Deron Williams is running the point with Dee and Luther on the wings, you have a consistently poor offensive team. This goes back to the Keady system of defense, defense, defense first, and Coach Weber proudly proclaiming they spend 60-70% of their time working on defense. Beemsville has railed against the motion offense for years – how predictable it becomes in the late stages of the season, how dependent it is on jump-shooting, how it does not foster post play and driving lanes and offensive rebounds. The fact is, these Illini teams would like to play at somewhere between 45-60 points and grind you down. But bad offense allows inferior teams (Penn State, St. Bonnie, Illinois State, Maryland) to stay with you and make a game of it. Because Coach is too stubborn, he does not work enough on offense in practice, young players get confused and lose confidence, and the Illini seem to always be on the verge of clinching up with the shot clock running down. There’s no variation, no transition game, and now Dee Brown, I mean – Demetri McCamey, I mean – Brandon Paul is taking a contested off-balance 3…
- Recruiting – This isn’t all Bruce’s fault, going back to the whole EJ Gordon fiasco, which screwed the program for years, and we also recognize that the Chicago Hype Machine makes certain players out to be better on paper than reality. It’s also a fact that the AAU and all-star scene churns out players who can dunk and shoot 3s, but can’t box out or pass it to the post. But with the exceptions of Jereme Richmond and Brandon Paul, Coach Weber’s staff has missed on the top Chicago-land players year in and out – even with the help of Jerrance Howard. We understand that you just can’t get some of these guys due to the dirt and grime, but you still have to do better. Additionally, the Illini have seemed unable to fill key positions at key times, such as right now with the point guard position. At this point, with Weber’s refusal to make even minor changes to his staff, offensive system, etc., major changes on the recruiting front seem unlikely.
So now we watch this slogging offense and unchanging system attempt to grind out 6-7 more wins and make it to the tourney, hoping to avoid a bad matchup and somehow make it past the first weekend. In all actuality, this was our prediction for the team before the season even began. These were reasonable expectations: finish in the top half of the conference, look dangerous in March, and win some tourney games. All of this could still happen. But the team could just as well go the other direction. And this is the same situation Illinois has found itself in for years. A seeming inability to get over the hump is why many are ready for a change.