Illinois Basketball: Is It Time for the Bruce Weber Era to Come to an End?

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Illinois Basketball: Is It Time for the Bruce Weber Era to Come to an End?
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Criticized for having success with Bill Self's recruits and continually underachieving with his own, Bruce Weber's job is no longer secure.

The Fighting Illini started off hot, winning their first 10, but have since dropped five of the last 10.

The young squad has shown bright spots. A victory in a double-overtime thriller against Minnesota and pulling out a battle against fifth-ranked Ohio State highlighted their rise into the Top 25. 

Junior Brandon Paul has enjoyed a coming-out party while redshirt sophomore Joseph Bertrand has performed well beyond expectations.  Sophomore Meyers Leonard has steadily developed since his freshman year and is starting to fill his sky-high potential. 

The Illini also had a nice win at home over Gonzaga and finally won in Evanston over Northwestern. 

However, a head-scratching loss to Penn State and losing another close one to Wisconsin at home on Sunday has definitely left question marks. 

On January 7th, their own fans actually booed them at home during a dismal effort against Nebraska. 

Maybe it’s the lack of experience.  Maybe they cannot handle being ranked like their gridiron counterparts.  Maybe they're guilty of playing to the level of their competition.   

One thing is certain: If they were as consistent as they are talented, Bruce Weber’s position would not be in question. 

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Meyers Leonard is projected to come off the board in the middle of the first round in the 2012 NBA draft.  He's widely considered one of the top true center prospects.

Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini have finally managed to find a big man who is a legitimate post presence.  Weak center play has troubled them for years.  

It's clear, however, that Leonard would greatly benefit from staying all four years at Illinois to continually hone and develop his game.  Right now, he's simply too raw for the league. 

Just ask Jereme Richmond how leaving the Illini early turned out for him. 

Brandon Paul is now also expected to be drafted in the first round—but not until 2013.

Bruce Weber has to convince his stars to stick around.  It’s a problem any coach faces perennially.  It does not matter if your last name is Krzyzewski, Izzo or Calhoun. 

Weber also has difficulty roping in the big high school names in the state.  The Chicago area is famous for names like Shannon Brown, Sherron Collins, Evan Turner and Derrick Rose.  He also lost Jon Scheyer to Duke, even though his brother coached Scheyer’s high school team—Glenbrook North.  From Indiana, he let Eric Gordon slip through his fingers. 

He does like to stay local when compiling his roster, but he has to figure out how get more home-grown NBA prospects to Champaign. 

In Weber’s defense, he has been handed the task of building a brand.  While the Illini enjoyed some success before Weber’s arrival, he did not have the luxury of taking a position at North Carolina or Kansas and automatically have 5-star recruits walking in the door. 

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

His record, in almost nine seasons with the Illini, is 208-91.  He has had four players drafted into the NBA, most notably Deron Williams, who was selected third in the 2005 draft.  He has led the Illini to two Big Ten Titles, seven 20-win seasons and the 2005 Championship game, including six NCAA tournament appearances and two Sweet 16 finishes. 

To put that in perspective: beloved, long-time Illinois coach Lou Henson only won 20 games three times in his first eight seasons and did not make any tournament noise in that stretch.  In over two decades, he only managed one Big Ten Title. 

University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas will have difficulty finding an experienced coach who can do a better job than Weber.

Of course, the college basketball scene is littered with young coaches who are more than ready to jump at a big-time opportunity.

Thomas recently hired Tim Beckman to lead the football team.  The 46-year-old coach only has two seasons of experience at the head coach position. He finished above .500 in only one of them at Toledo, a mid-major school.  So do not put it past the Illinois athletic department to take a chance. 

While there's no quick fix, Weber has been given quite a while to produce.  Plagued by mediocrity, the Fighting Illini have definitely had a foundation to build off of and players who stick around to develop the program.  Last season, they had four seniors on the roster, three of whom were starters. 

Other than Gonzaga, their first 10 games were a cakewalk.  Yet, they barely made it past Illinois State and then later Cornell.  They suffered bad losses to UNLV and Purdue. 

Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Brandon Paul’s 43 points versus Ohio State was an incredible performance, but it should not have catapulted them into the Top 25. 

It's obvious they have to get Leonard the ball more.  He causes lots of problems for opponents, yet often he can be found anywhere but the paint.  Just like the ground game opens up passing the ball in football, pounding it down low opens up the outside shots in basketball. 

Team-first or not, Weber has got to find a way to get his 7'1" center more touches.

The remaining Big Ten schedule for the Illini features several rematches including Ohio State and Wisconsin.  The brutal stretch is rounded out by dates with Michigan State, Indiana and two contests against Michigan. 

If Weber and the Illini are going to stay competitive in the conference and go deep in postseason play, they have to find their identity quickly.  A three-game losing streak would all but cripple their season. 

Severe underachievement cannot continue to define the Weber era.  The future of the Illini is bright, and the time is now.  This is the turning point for the program and his coaching career.  They will either climb towards the top or continue to reel in the stagnant state of mediocrity.   

If Illini fans want a championship or bust, it's time for Weber to go.  If average 20-win seasons, annually being in the Big Ten race, and at-large NCAA tournament No. 9 seeds are good enough, he's the man for the job.

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