Illinois entered last night's game with Purdue in desperate need of a win. And frankly, that's quite the understatement. A more accurate portrayal of the pressure cooker that the Fighting Illini and their embattled head coach, Bruce Weber, entered when they stepped onto the court at Illinois' legendary Assembly Hall would include the following disclaimer: if the Illini had any hopes of getting off the proverbial "schneid;" of salvaging the 2011-2012 season; or of remaining in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth and preventing the eventual off-season firing of their head coach, they simply could not lose at home to Purdue.
But lose at home to Purdue they did, 67-62 to be exact.
And now the wheels have officially come off the Bruce Weber era at Illinois.
With a first-year Athletic Director now calling the shots in the Illinois athletic department (and fresh off of firing football head coach Ron Zook), Bruce Weber came into the season knowing that he had almost no room for error. First year Athletic Directors lick their chops at the prospect hiring their own coaches; any coach who ends up working under new a A.D. knows that he's got a giant target on his back. The only way a coach in that situation usually keeps his job is by winning so much that it's impossible for the A.D. to pull the trigger.
So with the team in a tailspin, and with the knowledge that both the 2011-2012 season and their coach's job were hanging in the balance, Illinois went into last night's game with no other recourse than to win.
But they didn't.
So their NCAA Tournament hopes are all but over and the noose has officially been hung around their head coach's neck.
And clearly, he knows it:
Bruce Weber's post-game press conference is depressing. He appears to be completely defeated. Weber is a good coach, and he's had some great successes at Illinois. But he knows that he's a dead man walking.
Weber's post-game press conference might as well have been his post-firing farewell. He laments having "mollycoddled" his players this season in attempt to win a few more games, rather than having instilled discipline and an overall culture of winning. Interestingly (though not surprisingly to anyone who's been paying attention), Weber's lamentations confirm what Drive and Dish suspected were problems plaguing Weber's program way back in 2008.
A little background:
In his second season as head coach at Illinois, Bruce Weber's Illini steamrolled their way to the 2005 Final Four, where they eventually lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Championship game. But it took Weber several years to break through with Chicago area recruiting circles, and recruiting hit a four year rough patch following the '05 Final Four.
By the time the key players from Weber's 2005 Final Four team had all moved on -- Deron Williams and Luther Head ended up being NBA first round draft picks in '05; Dee Brown and James Augustine graduated in 2006 -- it had become apparent to anyone who had eyes that the cupboard was bare in Champaign-Urbana.
That didn't prevent Illini fans' expectations from being raised higher than Mt. Everest though. And Weber's early success only made his recruiting misses -- and the attendant drop-off in talent -- that much harder for Illini fans to swallow.
By 2009, Weber was finally starting to attract some decent players to his program, but his earlier lean recruiting years left his teams with a perpetual dearth of talented upperclassmen. Unfortunately, that forced the otherwise conservative Weber to rely heavily on the contributions of freshmen and sophomores, many of whom were thrown into the fire before they were truly ready.
So things were up and down following Bruce Weber's early glory years (2004-06). Drive and Dish never expected the 2007 Illini to play in the post season. We thought that Illinois' talent level was so low that year that the team would need a near-miracle season just to get into the N.I.T. But somehow, the team that probably had the least talent of any team in the Weber era managed to grind and muck its way to the NCAA Tournament -- even if it was accomplished by the heavy use smoke and mirrors.
Many Illini fans started to lose confidence in Weber that year (he'd been considered a genius by most Illini fans in 2005 and 2006), but we were impressed that he managed to do so much with so little ... though it certainly wasn't pretty, or fun to watch.
The 2008 season turned out to be a disaster for Weber's Illini, though. When they were in desperate need of a win to get off the NCAA Tournament "bubble," they got the Jamar Smith DUI/car crash fiasco instead. The fact that Smith and teammates went out and got s**t-faced drunk -- Smith's blood alcohol content was measured at over 2.0 -- the night before a "must win" game probably says as much about the state of the program at that time as anything that happened on the court. After Smith incident, the 2008 team tanked, and ultimately missed the post season altogether.
Illinois basketball rebounded in 2009, however, and what had originally looked to be a rag-tag assembly of "try-hard" overachieving upperclassman perimeter players and underfed, reed-thin underclassman big men, turned out to be the surprise upstart of the Big Ten. Illinois' nails-tough senior guards led the Illini back into the upper reaches of the Big Ten and back to the NCAA Tournament.
Predictably, after the surprisingly good 2009 effort, expectations were once again high for Bruce Weber and Illinois for the 2009-10 season.
But Bruce Weber had loosened the reins following the gruelingly ugly of campaigns of 2007-08, and with the absence of the toughness and leadership that senior guards Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier had provided in 2009, the 2009-10 Illini lacked -- you guessed it! -- toughness, discipline and leadership.
They ended up missing the NCAA Tournament and losing at home to Dayton in the N.I.T.
In 2010-2011, Illinois added the most heralded recruiting class of the Bruce Weber era to the returning upperclassmen who had so underachieved in 2010. Illini probably fans should have waited to see how the team would come together before they allowed their expectations to get out of control, but the Illini Nation was just so giddy over the fact that they finally had a big time recruiting class that it was virtually impossible to for cooler heads to prevail. Things really got wild after Illinois ran highly-rated North Carolina off the Assembly Hall court after Thanksgiving in the ACC - Big Ten Challenge. But predictably, as the season wore on, the Illini failed to live up to their fans' lofty expectations (unrealistic though those expectations may have been).
Illinois had more ups and downs than a bipolar manic depressive in 2011, and the senior-laden team spent much of the season in a familiar place -- the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Illini stumbled into the NCAA Tournament, but once there, they dismantled former Illini coach Lon Kruger's UNLV squad in the first round ... before being dismantled themselves by Kansas in the next round (Kansas, of course, was coached by Kruger's successor and Weber's predecessor at Illinois, Bill Self).
As the roller coaster 2011 season wore on, a significant percentage of Illini fans turned on Bruce Weber. By the time the season ended, most fans were happy to move on to 2012. The seniors who graduated in 2011 had comprised the core of two famously underachieving Illini teams. Bruce Weber had spent 2011 on the hot seat, but there was a feeling in much of Illini land that things might be better in 2012, if only through the process of addition by subtraction (of the departed underachieving seniors).
But the Illini 2011-2012 would return only two players who had played significant minutes in 2011, and there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that Weber's young and inexperienced team would fare particularly well in a league as stacked from top to bottom as the Big Ten.
After the graduation of four key seniors from the 2011 team (disappointing though that team may have ultimately been), and with the infusion of six freshmen and a senior transfer (that's seven new players!), it should have been clear to everyone that 2011-12 was going to be a rebuilding year for Bruce Weber's Illini. There were probably even residents at the Chicago Lighthouse For the Blind who could see as much.
Interestingly, many Illini fans did not have unrealistically high expectations at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season (for once). Illini fans were generally eager to see how all the new, young faces would fare once they took the court, and if you asked them, most fans would probably have told you that they just hoped that their young Illini would be competitive, and would improve as the season progressed .
But that changed pretty quickly: the Illini got off to a fast non-conference start, and 7'1" sophomore center Meyers Leonard blew up after dominating Gonzaga's Robert Sacre in front of a national television audience in December. So once again, expectations soared to the heavens.
Predictably, Big Ten conference play brought the rebuilding Illini back to Earth (although the Illini did upset two teams ranked in the Top Ten, Ohio State and Michigan State).
Anyone with a shred of knowledge about college basketball should have expected the young 2012 Illini to be a perpetual work in progress. Young teams like Illinois are usually "up and down": they usually win some games that they probably shouldn't win, and lose some games that they probably shouldn't lose.
And that's exactly what happened. But once the fans let their expectations start running wild, everybody seemed to forget that 2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Thus, with each close win and with each disappointing loss, the Illini Nation turned their increasing ire to Bruce Weber (as many had done last year). And by the time the Illini hit their February losing skid, the overwhelming majority of the Illini Nation was pining for Weber's scalp.
Bruce Weber has spent the latter half of the 2011-12 season with the prospect of a coaching change hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.
Now the sword has broken free, and it's about to take a good man out.