Saturday, January 29, 2011

For Illini, it's a new season, new team, same result

Paul Dalbey joins us as one of our guests for the 3rd Annual Blogathon
You can check Paul out regularly at: More Front Wing

Time Out!!! We cut away from your regularly schedule Rolex 24 programming to get a little bit of something off my chest. You see, I cut my finger the other day and my blood was orange – as in Illini Orange. In other words, I might be what you would call a University of Illinois fanatic (insert my MFW comrade Steph Wallcraft here rolling her eyes about Americans and their fascination with college sports in only the way that a good Canadian can do). You see, whether it’s football or basketball, I want to see the Orange and Blue doing well. That’s why I am so pissed off lately.

It wasn’t too long ago that Illinois was on the verge of becoming a perennial powerhouse in men’s college basketball. In the early part of the last decade, Bell Self, now the head coach at Kansas, was piloting the ship. Self brought in a stunning group of talented players that made a second-weekend NCAA appearance seem routine. More importantly, Self made leaders out of his talented players and convinced them that no matter what was going on in the game, they ALWAYS should expect to win.

Unfortunately, following the 2003 NCAA tournament, a series of events unfolded that sent former Kansas coach and basketball legend Roy Williams to North Carolina and took Self from Illinois. His replacement was an up and coming protégée of former Purdue Basketball coach Gene Keady, Bruce Weber. Bruce had spent the previous few seasons at Southern Illinois University as their head coach.

Things went well for Weber and the Illini for the first couple years. A Big 10 Championship in 2004 led to high hopes in 2005. With a roster made mostly of former Self recruits and led by stars such as Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head, and James Augustine, Weber led the 2004-2005 Illini to the National Championship game, falling just short to North Carolina in a thrilling finale.
Since that tough defeat in April 2005, things have gone downhill in Champaign, and, sadly, they don’t seem to be turning around soon. You see, what that Illini team had in 2005 was what Weber has failed to recreate in the succeeding years – leadership.

Over the past several seasons, there has been a disturbing trend that has befallen Illinois basketball. Every season, Illinois is highly regarded in the pre-season polls – typically picked to finish in the top two or three in the Big 10 and somewhere between 10 and 15 in the national polls. That’s exciting, sure, but every year, sure as clockwork, Illinois narrowly escapes getting beat by a Division II or III teams – the proverbial “Sisters of the Poor.”

Generally, the players and media will proclaim this early-season scare to be “the wake-up call” and things will proceed nicely for a couple weeks. By mid-Decemeber, though, the team will once again become completely complacent and usually lose another game to another team they should be expected to beat by 20-some points. A good performance against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, played always just days before Christmas, is generally when the team falls off a cliff and limps into the Big 10 schedule. By the end of January, talk has escalated that the Illini are already on the NCAA tournament bubble and need to start picking up quality wins to ensure they make the tournament.

In some circles, success every few years is acceptable and fans are appreciative of those rare occasions. That’s not the case with the Illini Nation. While most still hold Bruce Weber in high esteem for his work with the 2004-2005 team, the sheen has worn away and, justifiably, fans are realizing that it’s time for a change to break the annual cycle of Illini mediocrity.

There are years when good programs go bad. Look no further than the struggles at Michigan State this year. With six weeks remaining in the regular season, the Spartans have almost totaled their number of losses from last year already. The difference is that this year is an exception for MSU, not the rule. I have no doubts that Tom Izzo will get his program straightened out, and by next fall, MSU will once again be a Big 10 favorite and a national title contender.

At Illinois, it’s a more depressing trend. The high expectations and annual underachievement has become the norm, not the exception. Since the beginning of the 2005-2006 season (the post Deron Williams era), Illinois has played plenty of meager competition, and having watched nearly every game, I cannot recall more than two or three occasions where they have blown out their opponents by 20+ points. On the flip side of that coin, I can’t recall more than two or three games where Illinois has been blown out by a wide margin either. One could say that’s an even trade. I say it shows a lack of motivation and an attitude of invincibility, indifference, and complacency.

I’m not big into poor sportsmanship and running up scores. I thought it was pretty dirty pool when Penn State absolutely crushed my Illini football team in 2003 by 60-some points. It was made worse by the fact that they were leading by 50-some at halftime and then THREW for a touchdown to start the third quarter. (To his credit, coach Paterno chewed his offensive coordinator’s ass for the move right on the side line for all to see. Thumbs up, Joe!) However, I do believe that you need to take care of business and put up convincing victories over teams that are undoubtedly weaker than you.

A team that lacks motivation is a team that plays only good enough to be competitive. The hallmark of the Bruce Weber-led Illini is that they play always to the level of their competition. When they win, they win fairly close. When they lose, they lose fairly close. When you play a team like Ohio State, that’s really good. When you play a team like Indiana, that’s really bad.

You see, it’s easy to get hyped up for “the big game.” When you play against the #1 team in the country, like Illinois did last weekend against Ohio State, you’re always motivated. It’s easy to be excited and give it your all against those teams. A true sign of character emerges when you play the lesser teams – the UIC’s, the Indianas, the “Sisters of the Poor.” That is when motivation and leadership really show and Bruce Weber, since 2006, has been completely unable to produce that in any of his players. It’s an attitude problem and attitude, as they say, is a reflection of leadership.

Thursday night’s defeat at Indiana, a team that hasn’t won a game against a ranked team in almost three years, was the epitome of everything that is wrong with the Illinois basketball program. I mean no offense to my many friends that are Hoosier fans, but in all honestly, Illinois should have won that game by 15 points or more. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Illinois has a more talented group of players, and Indiana was missing their two best guards. Sadly, Illinois again just got out hearted and out coached. When it was time for an Illini to take charge and finish the game, nobody wanted the responsibility. Indiana, to their credit, stuck it to Illinois and absolutely, without a doubt deserved to win the game. I tip my hat to Tom Crean and his men for simply outplaying Illinois. But Illinois should have won the game.

Following the game, we in the Illini Nation had to endure the same talking head sound bites that we have to hear every time Illinois loses a game they shouldn’t. Weber inevitably comes on the radio and says that he needs to take responsibility as the coach for not preparing his players well enough. Demetri McCamey inevitably comes on the radio and says he needs to take responsibility as the senior point guard for not leading his team to victory on the court. Same old song and dance – rinse, lather, repeat.

College basketball is constantly changing. With eligibility rules and players constantly leaving for the NBA, no team is ever the same from year to year. If a team has a bad year, there is always hope that next year will be better. The fact is that in some years, a team just doesn’t gel. That happens in all sports. Sometimes when you change the cast of characters, you get undesired results. With the great coaches (and this is where I give mad love to Bo Ryan up at Wisconsin!!!!), you can change the players and the system remains the same – for the better. When team leaders depart, the great coaches create new leaders and the team continues their success.

Unfortunately, for weaker coaches, the inability to create leaders on your team is a fatal flaw. As has been the case for Weber and the Illini the past several seasons, the cast of characters has changed but the result has stayed the same – and not for the better. Whether you talk about 2006, 2009, or 2011, the results have been the same, regardless of who is on the floor. The same problem keeps showing through – a clear lack of motivation, a lack of leaderships, and an inability to perform at the top level 100% of the time. The only constant in those years has been the man calling the shots. It’s time to change that too.

NCAA Division I basketball is not a league where players get trophies for participating. This is the big boy league and as such, teams are expected to win. It’s not good enough to keep guys around because they are nice guys or because they do nice things off the court. These aren’t pick-up games at the Y where you congratulate the guy for playing well. This is the division where you had better produce results or someone will step into your place and get results for you. Weber has had his time. Weber has had his players. Weber has had plenty of opportunities to make his system work. It hasn’t worked yet. This season is ruined. Illinois has more great players coming over the next couple years, and without a new leader to steer the ship, those seasons will be ruined as well. In the meantime, the mediocrity of this season has those of us in the Illini Nation realizing that just making the NCAA, at this point, might be an achievement. Thankfully, few of us accept that as good enough. I hope Bruce Weber and his team don’t.
Ok, back to your regularly scheduled Rolex 24 programming!


Mike said...

great post! good to have some basketball around here.

99forever said...

"insert my MFW comrade Steph Wallcraft here rolling her eyes about Americans and their fascination with college sports in only the way that a good Canadian can do"

Meh. NCAA blah blah blah.

(LOL.. kidding. But my goodness, are you ever good at generating word count! ;) )

Pat W said...

Its not just Canadians that don't get the fascination.. :)

Unknown said...

Oh how I miss that 2004-2005 team. It was so much fun being on campus during that time.