Chicago Sun-Times
With Sun-Times sports reporter Herb Gould

February 2012 Archives


An emotional Meyers Leonard stood up for Bruce Weber after Illinois got drilled at Ohio State Tuesday,.

        ``He deserves the best,'' Leonard told reporters in his first media session since Weber had let his hair down after Illinois' Purdue meltdown. ``We're going to see what happens with the rest of this season, but he's been incredible for all of us. He's not only a teacher and coach on the court, but off the court as well, trying to make us good young men.''

        In this dark period for Illinois, which has lost nine of its last 10 games, Weber might be teaching Leonard the most important lessons a coach can convey.

        Sometimes bad things happen in life. And you have to deal with them.

        Being a Big Ten basketball coach isn't a civil-service job. You can do everything the right way. But if you don't win enough games, your job will be at risk. At Illinois, 49-54 over the last six Big Ten seasons, with only one NCAA tournament win, is not enough wins.

        Where does that leave Leonard, a gifted 7-foot sophomore? Still immature in a lot of ways. But learning fast.

        College sports is a big business. For all of his troubles, Weber is likely to walk away with more buyout money ($3.9 million) than 90-something percent of Americans make in their lifetime. The hurt and disappointment will be there, but that's a pretty good balm.

        Leonard also will have an opportunity for a big payday this spring. If he wants, he can enter the NBA draft, where he'll have an opportunity to sign for millions.

        By many measures, he's not ready. He's not nearly as good as he's going to be if he continues to improve. And the transition to the cold-blooded world of the NBA will be difficult. He'll be drafted on potential. But even if he makes some initial money, developing quickly enough to keep an NBA job is an open question.

        In most cases, especially one like Leonard's, where the family can use the money, it's a no-brainer to turn pro. And I've been assuming all season that Leonard will not be at Illinois in the fall.

Lately, though, I've begun to wonder if that's the right move--and if he'll rethink moving on and decide to stay in Champaign another year.

        Having seen him weeping on the bench during Illinois' humiliating loss at Nebraska Saturday makes me think he might do himself a favor by staying in college another year. 
There's no room for crying in the even-keeled NBA. And another year at Illinois would help him develop the skills to harness his emotions and use them on the court. That would reduce his chances of becoming that frustrated in the future.

Much will depend on Illinois' next coach, of course. One of the new coach's first priorities will be to meet with Leonard and convince him to stay in school. If they connect, Leonard should think seriously about that.

In most cases, it's very self-serving for coaches to convince star athletes to stay in school.

In this case, it might be in Leonard's self-interest to spend another year in college.

He can improve his basketball skills, which will improve his chances of being productive in the NBA when he gets there. He can prepare himself emotionally for life in the pros, which is relentless and demanding as well as exciting and rewarding.

Will he buck the trend and stay in school? Some of that will depend on what Weber taught him about life off the basketball court.

It's beginning to feel a lot like football.

When Illinois basketball continued its freefall on Wednesday, losing for the seventh time in eight games Wednesday, the similarity to Illini football was eerie.

After a 6-0 start in which it rose to No. 16 in the nation, Ron Zook's squad lost its mojo as well as games. It was beaten in its final six games and Zook was shown the door by new athletic director Mike Thomas.

Since a 15-3 start in which it rose to No. 19 in the nation, Bruce Weber's hoopsters have clanked their way to a 16-10 record. As with football, the knowledge that they're playing for their coach's job has made them play tight, and made things worse.

They have gone from Big Ten championship dreams to the NCAA tournament bubble.

Even after their 67-62 loss to Purdue, the Illini can still entertain Big Dance hopes by winning at least three of their remaining five--at Nebraska and vs. Iowa and Michigan. A fourth win, at Ohio State or Wisconsin, and they could even uncross their fingers and toes.

The real issue surrounding Illinois basketball, though, is not whether it will make the NCAA tournament.

At this point, unless Illinois goes on an epic run, it would be a big surprise if Thomas doesn't fire Weber.

The embattled coach seemed to be seeing that handwriting on the wall after the Purdue loss, when he broadened his post-game remarks and began talking about shortcomings for this season, rather than just one game.

`` The sad thing about the whole thing,'' Weber said, ``and I guess it's my fault--instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year. Instead of developing people, I was worried about winning. The last three years, all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. That's my fault. You're trying to please everyone instead of pleasing yourself. That's my fault, in hindsight.''

That sure sounds like a coach who senses that he might not be on the job much longer.

Weber drove home the point even further when he issued a clarification Thursday.

``I spoke out of frustration following another difficult loss,'' the coach said in a statement. ``I am disappointed in myself, as I said, for not developing a culture of toughness with our team up to this point in the season. The difference between winning and losing is toughness and having the will to win, and that is something we will continue to try to instill in our team.''

Weber went on to say, ``We have a lot to play for'' in the remaining games.

What's the clarification about? Sounds like a coach who knows his days are numbered,  and wants to make sure that he and his players make the most of them.

When I wrote a few weeks back that Weber might be in trouble, I mentioned that he has lamented not recruiting toughness. After the Purdue loss, he lamented not developing toughness.

I'm not sure you can instill toughness unless an inner will already is in place.

Deron Williams and Dee Brown oozed toughness as well as talent. Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier had the will to win. So do Sam Maniscalco and Tracy Abrams. With many others who have played for Weber--and Illini watchers know who they were--I don't know that anyone was going to bring out toughness.

Toughness starts with the type of player that's recruited.

But points like that are water under the bridge at this point.

Other things can be dissected. Weber never seemed interested in developing a deep bench. The recruiting can be second-guessed from here to Cairo. But that's all hindsight.

The bottom line now is, Illinois is 49-52 in Big Ten games the last six years. It has won one NCAA tournament game over that span. And the coach has lost the fan base.

That's a recipe for a pink slip when there's a new sheriff like Thomas in town.

Illinois' NCAA tournament case is a little stronger than Northwestern's. But both teams, which are 5-7 in Big Ten play, need to add to their post-season resumes in their final six regular-season games to be invited to the Big Dance.
A 3-3 mark might be enough for Illinois, which would be looking solid if it won four of its last six. For NU, 4-2 may be required.
Here are the projections for the Illini and Wildcats by three leading bracketologists.

No. 12 Illinois vs. No. 5 San Diego State
Lunardi projects eight Big Ten bids, with NU among the first four out and Minnesota among the last four in.

No. 9 Illinois vs. No. 8 Mississippi State
No. 11 NU vs. a No. 6 Gonzaga
Palm  projects nine Big Ten bids

No. 10 Illinois vs. No. 7 Murray State
No. 11 NU vs. No. 11 Xavier in an at-large play-in game
Glockner projects nine Big Ten bids.

All of these projections are very fluid at this point. The rest of the regular season will be pivotal for bubble teams, and they will have another chance to improve their situations in conference tournaments.
This year's Big Ten tournament ought to be very interesting on at least two counts. First, the addition of Nebraska means there will be only four first-round byes, with four games on Thursday involving No. 5 through 12. Second, because so many Big Ten teams could be on the NCAA bubble, the conference tournament ought be very intense and dramatic.
For Illinois, the most logical path to a 4-2 finish involves winning its three home games (vs. Purdue, Iowa and Michigan) and taking care of business at Nebraska. Trips to Ohio State and Wisconsin are likely to be tough.
For Northwestern to go 4-2, its best bet is to protect home courts vs. Minnesota and Michigan, and steal wins at Penn State and Iowa. The trip to Indiana and home date vs. Ohio State shape up as NU's most difficult remaining games.

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