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If Illini don’t finish season strong, coach Bruce Weber might be fired

Illinois coach Bruce Weber is 48-48 Big Ten play last 5 1/2 seasons. | AP

Illinois coach Bruce Weber is 48-48 in Big Ten play in the last 5 1/2 seasons. | AP

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No. 9 Michigan State at Illinois

The facts: 6, ESPN, 560-AM.

Updated: March 1, 2012 9:48AM

People keep asking me if Bruce Weber is fighting for his job as Illinois’ basketball coach. And if he should be.

Most of them use that word associated with pyrotechnics. And they use it with relish.

It’s always complicated with the Illini. But the answers are: Yes, it’s possible Weber will be fired if Illinois doesn’t put together a strong finish, beginning with a home game Tuesday against No. 9 Michigan State. And, yes, it would be an understandable call, given where the program is at.

I say that reluctantly because Weber is a good man and good coach, a fine ambassador who does things the right way. The trouble is, as with former Illini football coach Ron Zook last fall, eroding support from the fan base can’t be ignored.

The clamor for change is apparent Downstate, where Illinois has had only one sellout, and in Chicago, where serious boosters and other alumni have been restless for quite a while. Mix in the Illini’s checkered record the last six seasons, and the case for change is apparent.

Weber got off to a marvelous start in Champaign, riding the Deron Williams-Dee Brown-James Augustine era to eight NCAA tournament victories, including a Final Four; two Big Ten championships; and an 89-16 record, including 39-9 in the Big Ten.

In the five-plus seasons since Brown and Augustine left, Illinois has won one NCAA tournament game, missed the tournament twice, finished higher than fourth in the Big Ten only once and compiled a 119-76 record, including 48-48 in the Big Ten.

For a school with the Illini’s proud basketball tradition, that’s not hitting the mark. That 48-48 conference record is especially telling in light of athletic director Mike Thomas’ reference to competing for Big Ten titles when he fired Zook.

It’s easy to pick on Weber with Illinois in the midst of an ugly three-game losing streak. In road losses to Penn State and Minnesota, the Illini failed to take games that were there for the taking. At home, they showed no backbone against strong-willed Wisconsin.

When talking about a coaching change, though, it’s not right to look at a short view like that. Weber’s problem is that Illinois has had too many snapshots like that since the glory days of Dee and Deron.

The recruiting hasn’t lived up to expectations. Weber’s lone McDonald’s All-American, Jereme Richmond, turned out to be a troubled bust who lasted only one season in Champaign. The Illini are perilously thin in places again this season, and the likely departure of sophomore Meyers Leonard to the NBA raises serious questions about the future.

From time to time, Weber has lamented his Illini teams have lacked toughness. But he hasn’t recruited that toughness.

While Illinois has been running in place, other Big Ten programs have upgraded. Indiana and Michigan are revived, and Ohio State, Michigan State and Wisconsin already are rock-solid. And Purdue is in good shape, too.

Where does that leave the Illini? With a coach who hasn’t produced the hard-nosed teams he craves and who hasn’t recruited well enough to overcome other competitive flaws.

It also puts Thomas on the hot seat. It’s going to take a pretty bold administrator to fire the basketball coach and the football coach in his first eight months on the job.

In addition, a segment of Illini Nation will lobby hard for Illinois, one of only two Big Ten schools that never has had a minority men’s basketball or football coach, to leave Purdue alone in that category.

Even if Thomas is reluctant to make another giant move so early, the pressure to do it might be too great to ignore.

As I said, it’s always complicated with the Illini.

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