Wisch: The Truth About Illinois Basketball

By Dave Wischnowsky–

Frustrated Illini basketball fans don’t want to hear it. Frantic Bruce Weber critics don’t want to hear it. And, heck, to be honest, I don’t really want to hear it, either.

But it’s the truth. So, I’m going to tell it to you, anyway.

And, here it is: No matter what you might want to believe, the current mediocre state of Illinois basketball isn’t all Bruce Weber’s fault. Now, it’s his responsibility, mind you. And, as head coach, the task of fixing it (or not) is all on him. Make no doubt about that.

But it isn’t all Weber’s fault.

It just isn’t.

That’s because it’s also Eric Gordon’s fault. And it’s Kelvin Sampson’s fault. And it’s Jamar Smith’s fault. And it’s even Chester Frazier’s fault (don’t worry, I’ll explain that one).

Fact is, the de-evolution of championship-caliber basketball at the University of Illinois into the lump of mediocrity that, last night at Purdue, once again wasn’t quite good enough to win is the product of an almost perfect storm of at-faults. Some of them Weber should have been able to control, while others he’s been powerless against. But because of their confluence, the Illini program is ill. And it still won’t truly be healthy until after next season. Not during next season, mind you, but after it. In 2012-13.

Now, I know Illini fans don’t want to hear that. But they need to. And I’m not saying that Illinois can’t be good next season. It could. But to understand what the U of I program remains up against, we need to first take an honest look at how it fell into this mess, which is far more complicated than just one man. And to do that, I ask that you sit back, momentarily clear your mind of Bruce Weber catcalls and join me as we explore the truth about Illinois basketball.

Let’s begin in the spring of 2003, when Bruce Weber arrived in Champaign to replace the not-so-dearly departed Bill Self and faced a storm of skepticism. Weber wasn’t a charmer like Self. Rather, he was a square. He still is. And he was going to take a little getting used to. But the guy did know how to coach and had proved it at Southern Illinois. However, Weber now had to prove that all over again on the big stage to convince the Illini players, Illini fans and prospective Illini recruits that he was the right man for this job.

None of it was going to be easy.

At the time of Weber’s hiring, the talent on the Illinois roster was incredible. When Bill Self bolted for Kansas, he didn’t simply leave the basketball cupboard in Champaign filled. He left it downright stuffed. But so too had Lon Kruger in 2000, when Self replaced him as Illinois’ coach and subsequently enjoyed his best season in Champaign as he reached the Elite Eight with “somebody else’s players” – a charge with which Weber was to be often later derided.

In 2003-04, with his first team still smarting from Self’s departure, it took Weber half the season before Dee Brown, Deron Williams & Co. finally bought in to their new system – and their new coach. After they did, however, Weber took Illini basketball to unprecedented heights, culminating, of course, with the 37-2 Final Four campaign of 2004-05.

The next season – with seniors Brown and James Augustine leading the way – Weber kept Illinois kept rolling. The team busted out to a 15-0 start and finished the year an excellent 26-7, although it ended in disappointing fashion with a 67-64 heartbreaker to Washington in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Despite that letdown, all arrows were still pointing up for the Illini program. And that was largely because on Nov. 30, 2005, Weber, the so-called “Coach Who Can’t Recruit,” had done just that by snaring a verbal commitment from Indianapolis guard Eric Gordon, nation’s top-rated junior. With a new electrifying star on tap to join the team after next season, Illinois appeared set for certain future success.

The following summer, however, Gordon’s allegiance to Illinois began to waver as new Indiana coach Kelvin Sampson orchestrated a plan to convince the star to stay home. Ultimately, Gordon did – notoriously switching his commitment from Illinois to Indiana on Oct. 13, 2006, just before the Hoosiers’ Midnight Madness celebration.

Now, contrary to popular belief, it wasn’t Gordon’s decommitment by that so damaged Illini basketball – he was only going to be a one-year player, after all. Rather, it was how Gordon handled the entire situation that harmed Illinois – and Weber – so severely.

If Gordon had officially re-opened his recruitment during the summer of 2006, as he should have since his recruitment clearly had re-opened, it would have provided Weber the opportunity to sign another standout shooting guard (Purdue star E’Twaun Moore, perhaps?) for his still-hot Illini program.

Gordon, however, denied Illinois that courtesy and instead tied Weber’ hands. Then, by dumping the Illini at the last possible moment, Gordon and Sampson – who eventually was fired by IU for rampant rules violations – left Weber holding an empty bag and, even worse, unfairly branded him with a scarlet recruiting letter. For a coach still working to establish his reputation post-Bill Self, that was a truly devastating blow.

Because to the nation and its top recruits, Gordon’s stunning decommitment (which actually had been a long time coming) made it appear as if something must be wrong with Weber and the Illini program. As a result, Weber became radioactive to recruits thanks to no true fault of his own. And that’s the reason why Illinois currently has no players at all in its junior class. Not a single one.

Flash forward from October ’06 to Feb. 12, 2007, when Weber – still reeling from the Gordon saga – was dealt another sucker punch when star sophomore shooting guard Jamar Smith drunkenly crashed his car into a tree during a snowstorm.

The incident effectively ended the Illini careers of both Smith and freshman center Brian Carlwell. And in the span of less than four months, Weber lost two all-conference-caliber shooting guards in Gordon and Smith. Few programs in the country could have withstood that. And, when you factor in Weber’s already bruised reputation thanks to Kelvin Sampson and Eric Gordon, I don’t think any coach in the country could have just shrugged all that off and kept his program rolling right along.

Nevertheless, after a disastrous 16-19 record in 2007-08 – sans Gordon – Weber cobbled together an impressive 24-9 regular season and second-place Big Ten finish the following year. For that NCAA Tournament, Illinois earned a No. 5 seed and should have been poised to notch its first postseason win since Brown and Augustine graduated. But then senior guard Chester Frazier – the team’s best defender and toughest player – broke his hand in practice during the Big Ten Tournament.

End result in the NCAAs: A 76-72 upset loss to 12th-seeded Western Kentucky.

Now, of course, no one can say for certain that Illinois would have won that game with Frazier. But there’s no doubt that the Illini would have had a much better chance to shake that NCAA Tournament monkey from their backs.

Last season, as you’re aware, Illinois flopped and missed the Big Dance. And, so far, this season, the team has been painfully average and is currently resides on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

With five starters returning, hopes were high for 2010-11. But, the fact is, these Illini seniors just aren’t that good. They’re also not that bad. But each of them is limited in some major way that coaching can’t fix, with most of the limitations being strength-based. The team has players that are more talented and tougher than the senior class, but they’re still raw and young.
Four years ago, Weber made a major recruiting mistake when he signed three skinny big men – Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole – all in one class. That was his fault. But the fact that, because of the Eric Gordon fallout, he ended up with no current juniors to support this senior class wasn’t. Neither was what happened with Jamar Smith. Nor was what happened with Chester Frazier’s broken hand.

During my many discussions with Illinois fans about Bruce Weber, all I’ve ever asked is that they honestly look at the totality of the setbacks that his program has experienced – and that they try to be fair in their judgment.

Now, the good news is that Weber has shaken off his bad recruiting mojo and has signed three straight solid classes. The bad news, though, is that next season, Illinois will have no seniors, no sure-fire starter at center and no clear-cut answer at point guard. The program won’t have four full classes again until the fall of 2012.

The hole that Illinois basketball fell into was a deep one. And I’m no longer certain that Weber will be able to dig the team – and himself – out of it. The clock is ticking on him and his program, as it should be. However, this complicated situation that Illinois basketball is still facing today isn’t all Bruce Weber’s fault. It’s a lot of people’s.

And that’s the truth.

Whether you choose to believe it, or not.

Do you agree with Dave? Post your comments below.

davewisch Wisch: The Truth About Illinois Basketball

Dave Wischnowsky

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.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Strong blog today, Dave.
    We’ve missed you these past few days.

    Yup, it isn’t Bruce Weber’s fault…but his head will roll first whenever the powers that be decide that a scapegoat is needed. I think he is a quality Coach and that he runs a quality program.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thanks, Arse. I’m actually up in North Dakota for work this week (yeah, really … and really cold, ha). So, just haven’t had much time to write.

      And, yes, as I wrote, Weber is certainly responsible for his program and he certainly bears his share of the blame for its current state, but by no means bears all of it. And Illinois fans should recognize the full scope and scale of everything that’s transpired since the Final Four run.

  • Mark, Sterling

    Wow, Dave you opened my eyes a bit here. There are a few things that I didn’t even realize and then a few I just forgot about. Personally, I LOVE Bruce Weber. I think he is an OUTSTANDING Coach and all he needs are players who WANT to play and get better. McCamey and Tisdale should be the stars here but they refuse to listen and they let outside influences affect their play. They are losers and always have been. Weber will get the program back on track if given the time. I think they could be GREAT even next year with all the talent they have. Again, great work today Dave.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Thank you, sir.

  • Bobby C

    For the record, if Bruce Weber is able to keep his job and right the ship, he (and Illini nation) will have Jerrance Howard to thank. He’s the one who has fixed Illinois recruiting, especially in Chicagoland.

    • PeoriaSteve

      Gee, I can’t remember, who was it that hired Jerrance Howard despite cries that he was inexperienced and we needed a Chicago guy? BTW, Jereme Richmond committed before Howard was hired and Richardson, Paul and Bertrand committed 3 weeks after he was hired. Also, he wasn’t involved in the Meyers Leonard recruitment. Jerrance is great, but the credit goes to Weber.

  • Tuba Fossil

    Well put. As a lonely passenger on the Bruce Weber bandwagon, (I think it’s just me and some old guy named Guenther), I apprecaite anything that opens eyes and stops beefing UI fans.

  • Chad

    U.I.C. GMAFB. Ask yourself this: Why is Matt Painter the coach at Purdue and not Weber? And don’t give me the “the job wasn’t available when Bruce was offered Illinois”. Everybody knew Keady was leaving soon. The answer is they didn’t want him.

    • Dman Illini

      Excuse me Chad, but what, you don’t want to know the truth? THE JOB WAS NOT OPEN!!! How is that so hard for you to understand? Weber gets the Illinois job, which is arguably an overall better program anyway. So why leave for Purdue, although I’m not so sure the Big Ten would have allowed it. Congrats to his friend Matt Painter and the two should be battling it out for years to come.

  • Jason


    Setting to the side my numerous disagreements with your reasoning, it is clear that the lack of class balance is a huge and obvious problem for the current team. Given that, it is absolutely ridiculous that Weber has now apparently offered a scholarship to a legacy recruit who would be the SIXTH player in the 2011 class. If accepted, that would leave no scholarships for 2012 absent a transfer.

    How can anyone support the continued employment of someone who absolutely refuses to learn from past mistakes?


    • PeoriaSteve

      OK, two points: 1) the 2012 class is one of the weakest this state has seen in 20 years; 2)If one or more players redshirt from this class, what class are they then a part of? Oh yeah, 2012.

  • Chiefilliwek88

    In hindsight, Webber’s biggest blunders have come in recruiting and getting the right talent on the team. However, physical talent often shrivels up like a pre-adolescent teen on a cold winters day when they are not in the game mentally. Bruce has brought the horse to water, but cannot make it drink!

    In 1986, I had a freak bicycle crash after coming back from a game day drill practice bright and early in the morning. A large man, although boy-like in his behavior, stopped abruptly on the bike path while carrying his sousaphone back to the band building. Unable to stop, I collided with the man, doing very little damage to him, but throwing me from my bike while trying to protect my trombone for the upcoming performance.

    Trombone survived, but I was severely injured, with a sprained ankle and multiple cuts and abrasions. But did that stop me? HELL NO! The show must go on. It was Michigan, for Christ’s sake, and I had a spot to fill on the 50 yard line. The pregame and halftime shows both were performed to the precision Illinois fans have come to expect from the Marching Illini. Only after the performance did I make it to McKinley Health Center, where the doctor on call pronounced my ankle the worst sprain he had ever seen.

    Tisdale & McCamey need to play with their head IN the game, as well as their supporting cast. Living in Ohio, I can’t keep up with what demons they are experiencing off the court, but those demons need to stay far and away from the hardwood! Focus on winning for yourself, your teammates, your careers and last but not least, your fans!

  • joe

    jamar smith a star? sorry, no. also, every team has obstacles. illinois probably had more, but all kinds of teams have problems they need to overcome. michigan st lost its starting pg in the midle of a a tournament game last year, and won that game and two more to go to the final four. im not saying illinois should be as successful, but its ok to run into an obstacle and get over it

  • joe

    lets look at it this way – which team had more talent, this year’s, or the 1997 team. the latter was krugers first year. he had a really good pg in kiwane garris, and some unproven guys with potential. he turned that team into a top 25 team and a solid 6 seed. this year’s team has way more talent, and its not even a shoe in for the tourney yet. have to blame weber quite a bit for that

  • Mike in Milwaukee

    Hey, where’s that Bernstine blog that’s up every afternoon? This isn’t it. Anybody watching basketball today?

    • Larry Horse's Arse

      M in M love your calls to B&B (and love your suit).
      There are two cannot miss blogs on WSCR……Bernsie’s and Wisch’s.
      I read Bernsie’s blog because it has the magical medicinal power to relieve constipation (today with no Bernsie blog I had to tap my emergency supply of Metamucil).
      I read Wisch because he always presents an intelligent, well-written argument about some relevant/interesting topic. Also the quality of people who post on the Wisch blog is waaaay heads-and-shoulders above any other blog…really smart, sharp people post here (well, except for me…I’m a dumb@ss from Indiana).

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        Heh, heh, heh. You’re selling yourself short, Arse.

  • nikeyork

    Excellent article and so true.

  • Andy

    While it isn’t all his fault, I have to say I’m out of sympathy for someone making 7 figures to win games. No matter the reasons, the reality is in Bruce’s first five years after Self’s players graduated, we’ve seen 4 of the worst 8 years in three decades at Illinois, and one median year for that period. At least three of the other 4 years “worst” years (91-92-96) were all either directly or indirectly by the Bruce Pearl/Deon Thomas Probation. The reality is, by objective metrics, you have the worst 5 year span since the 70’s, and 4 of the eight worst years since then. Subjectively, without probation, you’d probably have all of the 4 worst years since 1982.

    I hope he turns it around, because he isn’t going any where and I want Illinois to win. In reality, it is impossible to support that he has earned the right to keep his job.

  • Calvin

    I like Weber, but I would put a bit more of it on his shoulders. I agree Jamar was a gem that could have gone far in helping the team, and Gordon was a disaster, but having more depth on the team is Weber’s responsibility. I can look past his “learning” mistakes in recruiting at a big-time program though. However, I think several things have stood out this year that I believe (and perhaps unfairly as I’m not in his shoes) to be coaching flaws. He has not given the young guys much of a chance to play despite having seniors that have not used his system and should see more bench time given their lack of hustle. 3½ years of DMAC not playing defense, and he still doesn’t sit him, despite so very many games lost because we can’t get a defensive stop late in the game. I don’t get that, and I think he’s got to get tough when he has relatively soft guys (you’d never have to worry about Chet for example). Also, why hasn’t he recruited some toughness at PG? It’s the natural leadership position, and we keep recruiting SGs. Don’t get that at all (although I’m sure he had a plan, one that just didn’t work out well).

    I also won’t give him a pass next season. He should have enough to work with to be top-25, and I expect he’ll hold himself to that standard as well. There’s talent on the roster now, and it’s just a matter of how quickly he gets them to progress.

  • John Geimer

    I’m not convinced Bruce can coach or recruit. His teams recently are the softest and dumbest teams Ive ever seen. I blame the players and him. Fire him ASAP. He’s had a long time to prove that he is super ordinary. I want more.

    • PeoriaSteve

      John, don’t let the facts get in the way of your argument. Next year’s class is the 3rd straight top 15 class Weber is bringing to Illinois, which basically hasn’t happened going back to the 60s. Interesting that you’ve called him “super ordinary” in view of the fact that he coached the only Illinois team to ever reach the National Championship game, completely changing the style they played under Self(High/low to Motion) and took Luther Head from a guy that couldn’t make an outside shot and made him into a great 3pt shooter, improved Dee’s shot as well.
      BTW, Wisch, absolutely an outstanding article. One of the best I’ve read.

      • Dave Wischnowsky

        Thanks, Steve. I really appreciate that. Just trying to cut out all the emotion and frustration and drama and tell it like it truly is. There are reasons for Illinois basketball’s current state.

        Many fans want to just ignore them and blame it all on Weber and Weber alone, but there are a lot of reasons for the current situation that extend well beyond just him and his control. And that’s not to absolve Bruce, because he’s certainly a big part of all this. But to say the whole problem is “bad coaching” is so simplistic. And simply untrue.

  • Larry Horse's Arse

    Dave, gotta give you tons of credit for today’s blog……if your job is to have a solid opinion that stirs the pot (i.e. is challenging), then you can see from the rapid response you got that you can consider the pot stirred!!!

  • Wayne in Lakeview

    Has Bruce Weber had some “setbacks?” Yes. Has Bruce Weber COMPLETELY mismanaged the U of I Basketball program for the last 5 years? Beyond a shadow of a doubt. The guy is in over his head. He belongs in the MVC.

    • chief

      So does the U of I.

  • BIG E

    I understand some of the comments you are making. I have trouble with a coach standing on side line with his mouth wide open not knowing what to do to fix the problem that exists at that time. I believe it is time for him to move on.

  • Mark Bessey

    One thing that seems to get left out of many discussions of Weber’s first couple years was the effect of Deron’s broken jaw. Had he not lost the weight, and gained some quickness in the process, and gotten hungry to get back to competing, I’m not sure that the Dee and Deron duo would have evolved as it did. Sometimes injuries end up with a net gain for the team, and I think Deron’s certainly did. Otherwise, a very nice history lesson…

  • Bruce Burnette

    It’s inexcusable to not have a back-up point guard who can play for the last 5 yrs. We witnessed that once again last night. Weber has a cupboard full of 6’4″ off guards, and no one to back up DMac. Chester Frazier, who should have been your back-up, was not a Div 1 caliber starter at a program like Illinois Next year looks like more of the same to me.

  • Tim Crouch

    The was as close to thourogh as could be but you forgot the Collins debacle as well. Great Article.

  • Wayne in Lakeview

    Wow, I can’t believe how many people are lapping this up. Weber has made most of his own bad luck. The guy has proven himself incompetent at almost every turn.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      Wayne, you’re entitled to your opinions, of course. And today’s blog was hardly to say Weber bears not blame or responsibility. He does. But he doesn’t bear it all.

      And incompetent coaches don’t go 37-2 and reach the national championship game. You can disagree, I suppose. But I don’t think you’d be very fair or honest — with yourself, or with others — if you did.

  • Roger McCoy

    The reason we have so many 6’4″ shooting guards and only one decent (I use that term lightly) point guard is very simple, and it a reason Bruce needs to go. THAT IS HIS OFFENSE. His offense is entirely predicated on perimeter shooting. Not driving to the basket. Not screen and roll, but perimeter shooting. Name me a team in the country…or in history for that matter…that has a 7’1″ center who scores more from outside 15′ than insid 5′.

  • OrangeUglad

    Holy Carp!

    It’s extremely refreshing that someone in the media finally acknowledged that most of the problems with Illinois has to do with adversity and not the coaching staff. Far too many people (fans included) have just pointed fingers at Weber. Even though the article deals with some of the biggest blows, there are also other reasons as well

    1.) Weber was the 4th coach in 7 years at Illinois which made it appear to be an unstable program to potential recruits. Weber’s immediate success with his 2nd season championship run also contributed, as recruits were worried that Weber might leave for greener pastures like the previous 2 coaches.

    2.) Jamar Smith’s accident affected the team in multiple ways.
    a.) The accident occurred late in the season which damages team chemistry.
    b.) Jamar’s accident affected 2 talented players
    c.) Weber stood by Jamar and gave him a 2nd chance. Weber standing by his player wasn’t necessarily a bad thing to do, but because Jamar got into trouble again it ended up hurting the program. After Jamar’s accident he sat out the following season, when Weber could have lined up a replacement for Jamar. Jamar didn’t get into trouble again until late summer which made it too difficult to replace Jamar. Plus the incident affected team morale.

    3.) The solid recruit out of California, Quinton Watkins, did not qualify after he committed to IL

    4.) Injuries plagued multiple Illini players for a couple of years (i.e. Richard Semrau’s life threatening injury) and Weber said at times he didn’t have enough players to even scrimmage. Remember that we had walk-ons playing significant minutes at one point (although Weber ended up giving them scholarships)

    5.) There was some shady recruiting that affected recruits that Illinois was pursuing… with one player committing to Kansas when they had never even visited KU’s campus, high school coaches daring the media “show me the cancelled check”, etc.

    I’m not a huge Weber fan, but he deserves at least 2 more years to see what he can do with the recruits he has coming in. We’ve seen what he could do with talent in the past, so I think he deserves it.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      All valid points, OrangeUglad. I, of course, wasn’t able to delve into every detail in this blog, and you provided a nice appendix by sharing these additional ones. It’s not a simple situation, and fans at the very least need to recognize that. They don’t have to be happy about it, but they do need to recognize it.

    • Dave Wischnowsky

      I’d also add the disappointment of Alex Legion turning out to be a non-talent was yet another blow to Illinois. Coming out of high school, every coach in the nation would have taken Alex. Unfortunately, he did not pan out at all. And that hurt, as well.

      That’s not intended an excuse, but rather as a reality. Very few things have broken right for Illinois in recent seasons.

      • OrangeUglad

        You are correct about Alex. I meant to add that as well, but these little posting windows make it hard to proof your comments when you have a long post.

        Jeff Jordan leaving also hurt the team. He would have provided the program with a backup PG for McCamey. I’m sure Jordan’s minutes would have dwindled as the season progressed, but he would have provided us with a solid option this year, and may have helped prevent a loss or two earlier in the season.

  • Bill L.

    I need an explanation as to how a reneged verbal in October of 2006 spells no juniors today. Reality is: Their never-ending class imbalance had them with seven 2011 kids at the time (McCamey, Tiz, Cole, Davis, Legion, Semrau, Jordan) and they chose to sign a two-man class of Simpson and Kellar.
    It wasn’t the worst strategy, as 2008 was dreadful in Illinois, but they effectively declared their faith in Jordan as a backup PG by ignoring Lewis Jackson and others.
    The 2009 class was “celebrated” in that it was their first class since an NCAA title appearance that had any cache at all. But at the midpoint, 2 of 4 are unusable and the better two are super spotty. It would be Matta’s worst class of his stay.

    • Scott

      It doesn’t have a thing to do with the 2008 class. Everyone knew that Gordon was a one-and-done, so where he went to school had ZERO impact upon anyone’s plans for 2008. This is just a really sad effort to make excuses for a lousy coach.

  • Wayne in Lakeview

    Bruce Weber recruited three soft bigs in one class in ’07. He’s recruited a grand total of one PG in six years, and that player is really more of a combo guard. He was an enabler to Jamar Smith, until he no longer had a choice but to let him go. The he ran off the victim of that fiasco. He completely whiffed on the ’08 class. And worst of all…he’s failed to even offer players who could have helped the program tremendously over that period and that would have lept at U of I offers (players like Jerel McNeal, Jeremy Pargo, and Jerome Randle). The guy has had some back luck, yes…but without question, the guy is his own worst enemy. The further we get from ’05, the more obvious it becomes he will never come close to replicating that level of performance. Minus Deron Williams and Dee Brown, Bruce Weber has been a complete failure.

    • Bill L.

      I don’t think “enabler” is fair. He gave the kid a second chance (as was celebrated with Luther) and I think most second chances are fair, as was this one. For Jamar to f. up a second time is on him — some better leadership among older teammates who were said to be strong in that area would have helped — but it’s ultimately on Jamar. Upon the second transgression, he was shown the door.
      I can’t begin to fault Weber for that run of events.

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