By Dave Wischnowsky–
The State of Illinois is caught in a blizzard. And the state of Illinois basketball is caught in a bind.
So…which one digs itself out first?
Well, if Tuesday night’s free-wheeling 68-51 victory over Penn State at an Assembly Hall as barren as Chicago grocery shelves is any indication, then the answer just might be Illinois basketball.
(After all, have you looked outside today?)
Nevertheless, even with Tuesday’s blowout win temporarily calming the natives, angry storm clouds continue to gather over the Illini hoops program – and in particular its embattled coach, who seems to blamed by a frustrated fandom for everything from shooting slumps to…
…Hey, can this snowstorm be pinned on Bruce Weber?
Really, though, on a serious note, with an 0-5 record this season in games decided by six points or fewer – and completely inexcusable losses to awful UIC and short-handed Indiana – Illini fans have every right to be frustrated with the way the 2010-11 campaign has gone thus far.
But, I would also remind them that the season isn’t over yet – not by a long shot. And Illinois is hardly the only highly rated team to suffer its share of setbacks. In fact, as Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis reported on Monday, last week 14 ranked teams lost and the entire AP Top 25 compiled just a combined 22-20 record.
“That’s right,” wrote Davis, “the very best teams in the country were two games over .500. It’s the very definition of mass mediocrity.”
With its slew of seniors and a talented crop of underclassmen, however, Illinois (15-7 overall, 5-4 Big Ten) should be far from mediocre. And, to that point, Davis also went on to write, “It has been a long time since I’ve been as disappointed in a team as I am right now in Illinois.”
He’s hardly the only one.
Now, I’ve been a longtime supporter of Bruce Weber and continue to be, but I’m also not a blind one. And while most of Illinois’ losses are not bad and all have been competitive, the simple truth is that with seven defeats already, Weber is not getting his job done. He needs to right the Illini ship, right quick.
And in order to do it, I think the veteran coach should consider making a drastic change to his bench coaching style.
My biggest issue with this Illini team has been its maddening inability to execute in crunch time and pull out the close ones – any of the close ones. You figure a team can’t possibly lose every tight game, yet Illinois has done just that.
There must be a reason why, and since the Illini’s 52-49 flop at Indiana last week, I’ve spent the past several days weighing different arguments. And where’s what I’ve settled on: There’s no doubt (or shouldn’t be) that Weber knows how to coach basketball. He proved that at Southern Illinois and by guiding Illinois to the 2005 Final Four. But it’s become my concern that Weber might, in fact, actually be over-coaching this Illini team.
It’s well known to anyone with ears that during games Weber barks out constant “real-time” orders to his players from the sidelines. And it has to be difficult for the Illini to play defense or run an offense while attempting to listen to their coach shouting out split-second directions on the fly.
Listening, interpreting and reacting will also be slower than just naturally reacting to an in-game situation, and I think that could be an explanation as to why Illinois players often seem to commit bad turnovers and make late defensive responses.
Last year, Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther sat struggling Illini football coach Ron Zook down and told him that he must make changes by hiring smart coaches to run his offense and defense and cutting back on his own decision-making. Those orders proved to be a big positive as the moribund Illinois football program was revived and went on to enjoy a surprisingly solid season.
On the flipside, if the late-game conundrums by the Illini basketball team aren’t sorted out by Weber on his own very soon, Guenther may need to have a similar sit-down with his hoops coach and tell him to just let his players play more naturally.
And save the shouting for practice.
Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com.