Why is Bruce safe?

Illinois basketball continued its march towards the NCAA tournament bubble on Saturday, falling to Michigan State 61-57 for the team’s seventh loss in their last 11 games.

After beginning the season ranked No. 16 in the country, the Illini now sit unranked with a record of 17-10 overall, and 7-7 in Big Ten play. Things will not get any easier for the Illini in the near future, as they travel to Columbus on Tuesday to play No. 3 Ohio State.

The Illini experienced a similar downfall last season, losing six of their final eight games as the team failed to make the NCAA tournament.

As Illinois fans continue to grow tired of the lackluster results, coach Bruce Weber’s job appears to be completely safe.

In a state of Illinois Athletics address on Wednesday, Athletic Director Ron Guenther spoke glowingly of Weber.

“I feel very confident that Bruce can get this thing figured out. He’s a wonderful coach and a great human being,” said Guenther.

Guenther’s words should come as no surprise. This is the same A.D. that has stuck with head football coach Ron Zook despite the program’s free fall after reaching the Rose Bowl in 2007.

While Guenther has made it clear that Weber’s job is safe, the Illinois A.D. should be seriously considering whether parting ways with Weber would be best for the Illinois basketball program.

Weber, who came to Champaign before the 2003-2004 season, led the Illini to success early in his tenure. The Illini won eight NCAA tournament games over Weber’s first three years, including a trip to the national title game in 2005.

However, Weber and the Illini have not won a tournament game since 2006.

“There’s no reason why we can’t compete at the highest level here,” said Guenther at his Wednesday news conference.
Guenther is right, so why has Weber failed to keep Illinois among college basketball’s elite teams?

A lot of the program’s struggles stem from Weber’s poor recruiting in his first years as Illini coach. Weber’s early results came coaching players he did not recruit into the program. Bill Self recruited the core of the 2004 and 2005 teams – Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, Roger Powell and James Augustine.

Weber failed to cash in on the  massive media attention the Illini received in 2005 as they started the season 29-0 and made the national title game.

From 2005 until 2007, Illinois high school stars Julian Wright, Sherron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose and Evan Turner all left the state to play their college ball. To make matters worse, Collins and Wright joined Self at Kansas.

Of the five players that made up Weber’s 2005 and 2006 recruiting classes, four ended up transferring from the program before their junior years.

To Weber’s credit, his recruiting has improved. According to Scout.com, the Illini’s 2010 recruiting class featured the state’s top three prospects, including Meyers Leonard, Weber’s first five-star commitment.

However, the state of Illinois’ two five-star recruits of the 2011 recruiting class, Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear, both spurred the Illini, committing to Kentucky and Louisville respectively.

Weber has not only faced difficulties in recruiting, he has also had trouble developing the talents of his players.

One of the main reasons the Illini were ranked highly entering the 2011 season was the perceived strength of their senior class, headlined by guard Demetri McCamey, forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale.

However, all three of the Illini senior stars have been removed from the starting lineup at some point this season for poor play or poor leadership.

It also seems Weber has had trouble keeping control over his program. In an interview with Chicago’s ESPN 1000 two weeks ago, Weber said outside forces have negatively affected McCamey.

“It’s disappointing, some of it is Demetri, obviously,” Weber said. “But the outside influences, just kill kids, I’m just telling you. I feel bad. He was playing so well, and all of a sudden, the runners, the agents, the third-party people, they’re all telling him he’s an all-American and this and that.”

The future looks bright for the Illini. They have a young, talented core in Leonard, Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Jereme Richmond waiting to take over control of the team once McCamey, Davis and Tisdale exhaust their eligibility.

It’s time for Guenther to seriously ponder whether the future of Illinois basketball would look even brighter with someone other than Bruce Weber as head coach.

I wrote this story in Feb. 2011  for my Sports Jounalism class with Len Shapiro.

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