After the 2012 season, Illinois couldn’t wait to get rid of Coach Bruce Weber. With all the “talent” the Illinois squad had, fans felt Bruce was the final roadblock in their return to contender status in the Big 10. Illini nation’s wish was granted, and Bruce was launched after the 2012 season. The results one might ask? Illinois continues to falter, while Weber is leading the Kansas State Wildcats to a top 15 ranking.
When Weber was announced as coach last March, Illinois fans chuckled at the hire. The sentiment around town was “good luck with that.” But the one thing Illinois fans forgot was the man can coach! Bruce Weber was the same guy who led Southern Illinois to a long run in the NCAA tournament before taking the Illinois job. At Illinois, he led the Fighting Illini to the National Championship in 2005. This isn’t a Tim Beckman like figure, the guy can coach basketball.
Weber is yet again proving himself to be an elite coach in college basketball this season at Kansas State. His squad is currently ranked 13th in the nation at 18-4 with impressive victories against the likes of Florida and Oklahoma State. Bill Self’s Kansas Jayhawks is the only team that stands between his team and a Big 12 Championship. Weber might have had a funeral for Bill Self during his time at Illinois, but this year, he’s hoping to bury him.
Weber’s team has a legitimate shot of winning the Big 12 and securing a #2 seed in the tournament without big name talents. He has done a great job using his depth and rotating players, finding the hot hand on a given night. Gone are the pressures of trying to please the “superstars” he had at Illinois during his last few seasons and back is the team atmosphere he had during his early years in Champaign. Weber’s biggest strength is having a deep team in which he can mix and match players. His 2005 squad was very deep, and we all saw how that turned out.
Meanwhile, The Illini continue to struggle mightily. Since entering Big 10 play, the Illini are 2-7. John Groce’s squad continues to abandon the driving game and settles for way to many threes. Groce is a good coach, but if you have soft basketball players, there is nothing he can do about that. As long as this team, especially Brandon Paul, continue to settle for long range jumpers on each possession, they aren’t going anywhere. It’s becoming apparent that it wasn’t the coaching last year; it was the rotten performance of the players.
A Bruce Weber detractor would fire back saying Bruce won with Bill Self’s guys and Groce is struggling with Weber’s terrible recruiting classes. All valid points, but when Weber brought in the likes of Brandon Paul, he was applauded for landing “Mr. Illinois.” When he got Jereme Richmond to sign with him instead of Duke, he was labeled a hero. Weber got the players the fans wanted, but not the guys to fit his program. Just because a player is talented, doesn’t mean he will fit your system. Bruce found that out the hard way at Illinois, and hopefully he continues to find his kind of “guys” at Kansas State.
While it might have been time for a new voice at Illinois, it had nothing to do with Bruce Weber’s coaching ability. The day Weber was fired, Big 10 coaches around the conference all showed their support for Weber and talked about not only the coach, but the man. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo went as far as saying “He's done it the right way. He doesn't cheat. He mans up to his own responsibilities. Incredible incredible person. I feel bad for the Illini nation because somebody's...somebody pulled the rug out from under them." Weber is yet again proving his place in college basketball as one of the best in the game and from one Illinois fan to another, I’m very happy for him.