By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) Heading into tonight’s annual “Braggin’ Rights” basketball battle vs. the streaking Missouri Tigers in St. Louis, Illinois is 11-1.
But you’d hardly know it.
Rather, with the last four Illini games having consisted of a trio of unimpressive victories over the likes of St. Bonaventure, Coppin St. and Cornell sandwiched around a sloppy loss to UNLV, the team’s fan base right now is a lot more Scrooge than it is satisfied as Christmas closes in on us.
In fact, things got testy enough with the fans at the United Center on Saturday after Illinois’ ugly 64-48 setback against a good UNLV squad that even the beat writers covering the Illini were apparently subjected to catcalls from the orange-clad crowd.
“There were more than two fans that came down to ‘talk’ to me [after the game on Saturday],” the Champaign News-Gazette’s Paul Klee replied to a commenter during his online chat at IliniHQ.com on Wednesday, “though it was more yelling.”
Imagine if Illinois was 10-2.
On Wednesday afternoon, I heard from an angry Illinois fan myself who vented via Twitter that the Illini’s record of “11-1 is an aberration of scheduling cupcakes. Defense is bad and offense is boring.” He then added to his comment a hashtag: #FireBruceWeber.
With Illini Nation skittish after this season’s 6-0 football start degenerated into a 6-6 finish and weary after watching too many disappointing hoops performances during the past few seasons, I understand fans’ skepticism. And I get the frustration about the current lackluster state of the Illini basketball program.
I feel it, too. Despite living 130 miles from Assembly Hall in Chicago, I was an Illinois basketball season ticket holder each of the last two seasons. This year, however, I didn’t renew my tickets as I entered this season with more apathy about Illini basketball than I have in ages.
Nevertheless, calling for Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s head after a single loss out of 12 games – as good a start to the 2011-12 season as anyone could have expected – is the definition of overreacting.
I’ll remind you that this past February, while in the midst of Illinois’ underachieving 2010-11 campaign, I wrote a blog entry entitled, “The Truth About Illinois Basketball.” In that column, I wrote “… the Illini program is ill. And it still won’t be truly healthy until after next season. Not during next season, mind you, but after it. In 2012-13.”
Many Illini fans didn’t want to hear that then. And a lot of them don’t want to hear it now, either. But it remains the truth. Because, last season, Illinois had zero players in its junior class (not the sign of a healthy program) and this year, in fifth-year Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, it has just a single senior (still not a sign of health).
Now, the reasons for those recruiting droughts are myriad, which I won’t revisit in this blog today. But, with six freshmen joining the program this season, anyone who didn’t think that this Illini squad wouldn’t experience its ups and downs just wasn’t being rational.
And, right now, the downs for those rookies – as well as for inexperienced reserves Crandall Head and Joe Bertrand – are definitely outnumbering the ups.
During the last four games, for example, the Illini bench has combined to make just 5 of 36 shots (that’s 13.9 percent for those scoring at home), providing scant production. Now, whether those youngsters break through this wintertime wall or get completely stopped by it as standout sophomore center Meyers Leonard did as a freshman last season remains to be seen.
And the same also goes for Bruce Weber’s fate.
Illini fans can be assured that the ninth-year coach’s job status will be appropriately determined during this season and next. But they’re probably going to have to wait through this year and next.
Because, having been maligned for years for his inability to recruit, Weber has brought three consecutive highly touted classes to Champaign. And as long as Illinois qualifies for the NCAA Tournament this season, he deserves the chance to coach them as a fully developed bunch in 2012-13.
Now, if Illinois completely collapses this season and fails to make the tourney for the third time in five years, well, Weber will most likely be joining Ron Zook on the unemployment line this spring (and most likely should).
However, I find it unlikely that new Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas has much of an appetite to fire his basketball coach just months after he fired his football coach. Not unless Thomas is absolutely forced to do so.
Quite simply, to make two coaching hires of such magnitude during one’s first year on the job would put an enormous amount of pressure and scrutiny on an AD. I doubt Thomas wants that kind of spotlight. So, in the meantime, it will shine squarely on Bruce Weber & Co. as the Illini take the floor tonight against a ninth-ranked Missouri team that’s playing as well as any team in the nation.
In due time, we will find out if Weber’s tenure completely melts beneath the glare or if it instead congeals and returns the Illini to national prominence. I guarantee the results will be one or the other.
But until then, Illinois fans need to make a resolution this New Year: Be patient.
Because, Bruce Weber’s story still has a while to play out. Whether you like it or not.
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. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.