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What went wrong with Bruce Weber at Illinois?

Bruce Weber

Bruce Weber

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Updated: February 21, 2012 3:02PM

Before anointing Buzz Williams or Shaka Smart or Chris Collins as Illinois’ next basketball coach, Illini fans might want to ask themselves one question: How did Bruce Weber lose his touch?

And there’s no doubt that Weber indeed has lost his touch. He came to Illinois with a well-deserved reputation for developing overachievers — as an assistant at Purdue and the head coach at Southern Illinois. But who was the last Illinois player who was better than advertised? Chester Frazier? Demitri McCamey? Mike Davis?

Who’s the last Illinois player whose stock peaked during his final season? Meyers Leonard might be NBA-bound, but he was rated higher nationally out of high school than Deron Williams. And already he’s shown the signs of stagnation that has plagued other Weber recruits at Illinois.

Weber’s time at Illinois seems to have run its course. His failure to parlay the glorious 2004-05 season — when Illinois not only was ranked

No. 1 in the country and reached the national championship game, but looked great doing it — into a recruiting bonanza forced him to sustain the program the old-fashioned way: by getting the most out of what he had. It worked at Purdue and SIU, but not at Illinois. What happened?

How is that at SIU his gambles paid off and at Illinois even supposed slam-dunks like Jereme Richmond crapped out? At Southern, Weber took a chance on Rolan Roberts, who transferred from Virginia Tech after being suspended following a charge of sexual assault. He took a chance on Jermaine Dearman, a ‘‘free spirit’’ from Indianapolis with an ‘‘inconsistent lifestyle’’ and bad grades. They both started on Weber’s 11th-seeded Saluki team that upset No. 6 Texas Tech and No. 6 Georgia to reach the Sweet 16 in 2002 (and had beaten eventual NCAA tournament runner-up Indiana during the regular season).

How is that at SIU, players who started fast finished strong but at Illinois they seem to level off? At Southern, Kent Williams was the

Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year in 2000 and the runner-up for MVC Player of the Year as a junior and senior (to Creighton’s Kyle Korver both times).

How is that at SIU Weber had a knack for finding overachievers while at Illinois the notable overachiever is the son of the greatest basketball player of all-time? At Southern, Weber recruits paid off after he left for Champaign: Darren Brooks was the MVC Player of the Year in 2004 and 2005. Jamaal Tatum won the award in 2007.

So the question at the heart of Weber’s demise is this: Why is it so much more difficult to get better players to overachieve? Maybe Weber is just more adept at getting more out of less. But you also have to consider this possibility: Maybe good players are harder to coach today. Maybe the increasing influence of AAU programs in the development of young players — and the decreasing influence of high school coaches — instills a sense of entitlement in talented players that makes it difficult for a coach like Bruce Weber to get through to them.

And maybe the next guy — no matter how enticing he looks to you today — will have just as much trouble with the same caliber of athlete. As last year’s Final Four so perfectly illustrated, college basketball coaches win with athletes at either end of the spectrum: NBA-bound prep All-Americans (Kentucky and Connecticut) or overlooked guys hungry to prove everybody wrong (Butler and VCU).

Weber seems to get everything in between, with a lot of locally touted players in the bottom half of the top 100 recruiting rankings — but can only get so much out of them. It’s not just him, either. Even Tom Izzo struggles to max out on those guys.

Weber’s coaching credentials are unquestioned. But the NCAA game has become a difficult fit for him. Interesting that Bruce’s brother Dave Weber has had much better luck maintaining success at Glenbrook North High School after a career spike in 2003-06 that mirrored his brother’s. It’s a lot easier to do what the Webers do best at that level.

(And it’s almost ironic that three players from Dave Weber’s 2005 state championship team won NCAA titles in college — Jon Scheyer at Duke in 2010 and Sean Wallis and Zach Kelly at Division III Washington University in 2008 and 2009. A superstar and two D-III guys — one extreme or the other.)

After too many disappointing seasons, Bruce Weber has vowed to crack the whip. It worked at SIU in 2001, when he publicly criticized his players after the Salukis took a step back in Year 3. ‘‘I’m not going to let those guys hold me hostage anymore,’’ he said on his radio show. ‘‘We’re going to play guys who care and want to work hard.’’ The following season Southern Illinois went 28-8, tied for the MVC title and reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

But it appears he’s too late this time. There are coaches out there who can get more out of Illinois’ talent than Weber has in recent seasons. But how much more? Illinois has to be real careful about what they’re looking for. Let’s not forget the best Illinois team in the last 20 years had an unusual and fortuitous dynamic — it was recruited by Bill Self and coached by Bruce Weber. If Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas makes the change as expected, his challenge will be to find two coaches in one.

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