When Bruce Weber Failed The Illini

When Bruce Weber Failed The Illini

With their loss, at home, to the University of Michigan in the books, it appears more likely than ever that the fans in Champaign have been left feeling I-L-L too often this season for coach Bruce Weber to keep his job.

Since being hired on April 30, 2003, Weber has put together one of the better resume’s in Big Ten history. Weber’s 193 wins in his first eight seasons on the bench for the Illini are not only the most in the conference’s history for a coach’s first eight seasons, but they put him third on the all-time list at the University.

Obviously Weber peaked in his first three seasons. With Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown running the show, Weber’s Illini played in the 2005 National Championship Game, and won 25 games and advanced to the second round of the tournament again the following season (after Williams went pro). The Illini won the 2004 and 2005 Big Ten championships, were ranked #1 in the country for most of the 2004-05 season, and had a number of players contribute in the NBA.

Now, many fans wonder where the good ol’ days have gone. Weber recently came close to admitting that he’s a dead coach walking, telling ESPN that he wanted to remain at Illinois.

The honest, painful truth, though, is that Weber ultimately failed the Fighting Illini during those glory days and never recovered.

There have been a few recruiting mishaps during Weber’s time in Illinois. During the great run in the early years, Charlie Villanueva verbally committed to the Illini under Bill Self but then signed with UConn. Three years later, and more infamously, Eric Gordon committed to play for Weber and then (under suspicious circumstances) wound up playing for Kelvin Sampson at Indiana.

But neither of those guys is “the one that got away.”

While coaching arguably the greatest Illinois team ever through unquestionably the best two-year stretch in school history, Weber had the opportunity to secure a stranglehold on one of the great recruiting areas in the country. But he didn’t.

Williams, Villanueva and Gordon all share something in common: they aren’t from Illinois. Williams came to Champaign from Texas, while Villanueva was born in New Jersey and Gordon was from Indianapolis.

Dee Brown and Luther Head, however, were Chicago boys. And had strong Chicago connections at a time when great players were coming out of Chicago.

Brown played his high school ball at Proviso East on Chicago’s west side (Maywood), and had a teammate that showed some promise. While the transition from Self to Weber may have cost Illinois Villanueva, Weber could have used Brown’s influence on a former teammate to persuade him to join the Illini.

But while the Illini were winning the Big Ten championship in 2003-04, that player was playing in East Lansing for rival Michigan State. He was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team, and was named honorable mention Freshman All-American by Rivals.com. Oh, and he was one of the great showtime dunkers in the country.

The following season, while Illinois was having the best individual season in school history, this guy was averaging just under 11 points per game for the Spartans. In the NCAA Tournament, he was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Austin Regional, averaging 13.5 points and 3.3 rebounds as the Spartans charged to the Elite Eight.

Could the Illini have won the 2005 National Championship if this guy had been wearing orange instead of green? Perhaps.

But just as Williams did, this player joined the NBA after the 2004-05 season (after his sophomore year). And, just like Williams, he was selected in the first round of the 2005 Draft. And, just like Williams, he’s still making millions of dollars playing ball in the NBA.

Weber desperately needed to get Shannon Brown to join Dee on the Fightin’ Illini, but he didn’t.

Yes, that Shannon Brown.

Shannon Brown could have been a key figure in making Weber’s recruiting base in the city of Chicago.

The trickle down of keeping a strong recruiting base in Chicago cannot be underestimated. And when Weber did return to Chicago, every player he signed was a mistake (see Proviso East’s own Brian Carlwell for a great example).

Landing Shannon Brown could have been huge.

It could have been enough to keep 2005’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois in the state rather than playing for Self at Kansas. Homewood-Flossmore’s Julian Wright would have helped the Illini a lot. And his teammate at Kansas, Crane’s Sherron Collins, could have been a nice player for Illinois as well.

And it could have been enough to keep 2007’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois in the state rather than playing a year at Memphis. Derrick Rose would have looked really good in orange. Two other kids that played their ball in the near western suburbs were high school teammates. One went to Illinois, Demetri McCamey. His teammate at St. Joe’s, Evan Turner, went to Ohio State. One of them is still playing in the NBA, and it isn’t McCamey.

Maybe the biggest burn was when Jon Scheyer, Mr. Basketball in 2006, went to Duke. After all, Scheyer played one of the most dominant high school careers in the state’s history for Weber’s brother, Glenbrook North head coach Dave Weber.

Sure, Weber grabbed Mr. Basketball from 2009 and 2010 – Brandon Paul and Jereme Richardson – but they weren’t from Chicago. Paul, from Gurnee, and Richardson, from Waukegan, took their game to Champaign but neither lived up to the hype.

To survive in the Big Ten, much less at a national level, Weber had to maintain a solid recruiting base in Chicago. The city has been one of the great centers of basketball talent in the country over the last 20 years, and it’s the biggest city in the state he represents. But Weber has regularly struck out when trying to land top-tier talent in the city, and we can look back to Shannon Brown heading to play for Tom Izzo as the first crack in the now-crumbling foundation of Weber’s program.

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