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.