If you can’t build it, they won’t come

Illinois fans don’t have the convenient excuse on Jabari Parker.

While the Simeon junior superstar is the epitome of close to the vest on his recruitment, Illini fans know darn well he won’t be heading two hours down I-57 for his lone season of college ball. And unlike the cases of Sherron Collins, Julian Wright, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, there are no suitcase-of-cash murmurs as to why Illinois isn’t in the Parker picture.

No. Illinois will watch Parker go elsewhere because Illinois’ program isn’t good enough.

Reason enough to need a new coach. Not for missing a single recruit, even if it’s about the 30th single recruit.

Because of the state of the state school.

You all know it is in shambles. We come to you after Athletics Director Mike Thomas provided “read between the lines” criteria to Illinois’ two key radio audiences — at home on WDWS and in Chicago on The Score — that made it clear even to the proverbial child of 3 that his coach was gone.

We come to you even after the coach admitted as much himself in a depressing, meandering postgame to his umpteenth straight Purdue loss. In eight minutes Wednesday night, Bruce Weber managed to say “that’s my fault” about a half-dozen times while deviously painting a picture of it being his players’ fault, specifically his best players’ fault.

Taking the blame, passive-aggressively.

How ironic, those two words. Weber’s nine years are marked by a series of stunningly passive teams, by all measurable means:

  • An annual ranking in the bottom third of college basketball in free throws attempted.
  • A game-by-game flogging in the offensive rebound category.
  • A steals column that never reaches double digits.
  • A bagel under the box-score category of “fastbreak points” in upward of half the games this season.
  • Field-goal-attempt totals with which you simply can’t sustain success at any level of basketball.
  • A seeming disdain for trying to score off the very high number of baseline inbounds play a team gets on its own end in the average college game.

Weber on Wednesday lamented not establishing a culture among his kids, one of toughness. But through three roster makeovers after the divine group he inherited, the list above is this program’s culture.

Add this season’s glaring weakness that has confounded just about every color analyst to call the Illini on TV — the oft-fleeting interest in establishing gifted 7-footer Meyers Leonard on the block and an almost funny inability to pass him the ball — and you have a program that is a strategic step or two behind the opposition almost every night.

You want to know the real problem? Weber is a better game coach than he is a program coach.

The man’s undoing was his roster-building, from the days of embarrassing recruiting hauls in the afterglow of the 2005 Final Four to all these years of the biggest myth out there: that Jerrance Howard fixed everything.

A C-minus recuiter could have conceded Rose’s recruitment was shady from the start — could even have endured the spurning of Eric Gordon — and still signed a 2007 class of Evan Turner, Robbie Hummel, Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale. Possibly with E’Twaun Moore to boot. It bordered on stunning to watch Weber fumble away Turner and essentially un-recruit third-generation Illini legacy Hummel.

To watch a single team at the last Nike All-America camp ever, and know Illinois had said yes to Bill Cole and Jeff Jordan and gone out of its way not to welcome Hummel, as I did in July of 2006 at Indianapolis, was to know that trouble lied ahead. Hummel, while still vastly underrated at the time (to the extent people thought his Valparaiso prep teammate Scott Martin was better) was dazzling all weekend. Cole acquitted himself OK. Jordan was an obvious courtesy invite. (To be fair, Illinois recruited him as a preferred walk-on.)

Quiet little smear campaigns by the Illini staff ensued against local favorites Lewis Jackson (“He’ll never qualify”) and Verdell Jones (“too skinny”) before both filled roles for Indiana schools that Illinois could have used filled at home. But woe is the program that pines for LewJack or VJ3. Indeed, had Bill Self stayed, those two wouldn’t have received a sniff by the U of I, either.

The difference, of course, is Self practiced what he preached on the second day he was ever around Illini basketball. The occasion was a midsummer Flyin’ Illini reunion, and Self was there with assistants Billy Gillispie and Norm Roberts. Self said he liked to have two point guards on the floor if possible, or at least two guards who could at times play the 1.

He backed it by leading Illinois’ best recruiting class — ever? — with Deron Williams and Dee Brown. Those two would grow  up to go 37-2.  Self kept exhibiting the philosophy at Kansas, where a team with Mario Chalmers and Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins won a title. Then Collins and Tyshawn Taylor overlapped, and so on.

Weber left himself visibly deficient at point guard on every team after Dee Brown left. I beg you not to cite McCamey’s gaudy assist numbers as a junior as counter-evidence. It reached crisis proportions at times, as even the departure of the do-nothing Jordan could not be overcome when nary an able backup PG existed in his stead.

Weber all but doesn’t have a PG in this, his last season, with ghastly low assist numbers out of his Sam Maniscalco-Tracy Abrams duo and a team slate that shows more turnovers than assists virtually every game.

I see a college coach who tries to build a team without a PG and I think of Dave Wannstedt, a football coach who tried to build teams without an offensive line. It’s beyond belief they don’t understand the leadpipe necessity of having such positions filled.

Weber was also nearly immune to forwards as he mismanaged his rosters again and again. The decidedly unstable Jereme Richmond was about the only forward recruit of note as Weber fell in love with the three-guard idea in 2005 and never let go. Such an approach can be done successfully if, say, you are Duke and spread the floor with skilled ballhandlers and generate dribble-drive offense on almost every trip.

Alas, Weber’s teams do nothing of note off the bounce, perpetually seeking the mythical day when the motion offense is finally understood by these juniors, darn it, and they get shots other than turnaround 3s after running from one far wing to another. (Translation: Weber is waiting for Deron to come back and use that last year of eligibility.) The most telling quote from the Purdue postgame: “You don’t need to make plays. You need to be solid and do what you’re supposed to do.”

Duke aside, most college champions do it with a bevy of bigs. Whether it was Florida’s Horford-Noah combo with 6-8 Corey Brewer at the 3, or Kansas’ Arthur-Aldrich-Kaun-Jackson assault, or North Carolina’s Hansbrough-Davis-Thompson-Zeller depth or whatever Jim Calhoun throws out there each new cycle.

Weber left himself bankrupt there, too. Only now, with a good starting 7-footer and another promising center the class behind, has Bruce shown any emphasis on defending the rim.

But it’s too late, because Weber’s teams remained devoid of the other element you need to win at any level: shooters. His last team at Illinois will essentially be a 1-out-of-4 squad on 3-pointers. That’s largely because of the stagnant offense; it’s partly because the annual whipping boy was sharpshooter Tyler Griffey; it’s partly because the best offensive player in the program, Myke Henry, has been brought along at Weber’s trademark freshman speed (think continental drift).

Ours, however, is not to worry about why. All of Weber’s team-building errors converged on him, even now, after three allegedly Top 15 hauls occupy three of the four classes.

Chasson Randle and Ryan Boatright would have been better shooters. Anthony Davis and Wayne Blackshear better interior players. Hummel and Turner better leaders.

The latter two would have come if you had even the slightest sales pitch. That would have brought the elusive status Illini fans are always seeking: a sustained elite program. In that case, the other four listed above, of whom only Randle flirted with the Illini, would have come of age under an entirely different vibe in Illinois, a program with a dozen years of serious mojo. They wouldn’t have looked the other way because the program was not worthy.

So when Weber friends and apologists Doug Gottleib and Tom Izzo, et al., preach to Illinois fans about how they should accept Weber’s .670 ball because Illinois is not the elite program it thinks it is, ask them something:

Whose fault is that?

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “If you can’t build it, they won’t come

  1. Gary Ghighi

    Bill, This is the best column I’ve ever read!! I’ll make sure the whole gang reads this.

  2. Scott

    Spot on!

    Great, great article.

  3. DCru

    Bill,

    Wasn’t Evan Turner recruited hard, only to have Matta offer him a take it or leave it on his visit, and he took it? I remember nothing of not recruiting him hard,

  4. MDYounger

    Hey, as an old poster to the AOL Illini board, how come Eddie Curry wasn’t a perennial all star like you assured us he would most certainly be?

    I pretty much agree with this article but I thought you kind of forgot about the Illini when the Peoria guys moved on.

  5. Erik

    Well done!

    The only quibble I would make is about Turner’s recruitment. Yes, Weber deserves blame for not closing the deal with Turner, but the staff did actively recruit Turner. They just got beat by Matta.

    And of course, much of this belies an assumption that may or may not be true: that players like Hummel and Turner would have turned out the same as Weber coached them into passive versions of their more successful selves.

  6. LLLINI

    The only error in your analysis is assuming that Turner, Hummel, et al, would have become the same players they did if they had played under Weber. It’s a laughable assumption. Turner would be pumping gas somewhere with Demetri McCamey, Hummel would be Bill Cole 2.0, had either one come to Illinois and been subjected to the (non)motion offense.

  7. David Lockhart (1981 guard LHS)

    good job. Ron Felling once said we’re only as good as our guards and right now we have some worhtless F’ing guards. THat was in 1981, when Madison humiliated his team. that all changed the next two years as the guards did their job and got Marty Simmons the Ball, much like Illini gurds should be getting Leonard the ball.

  8. Steve Sebade

    This is SPOT on Bill!! I am glad now that the real story that we have saw and knew was happening is out. People feel sorry for Weber why? He has been getting a lot of $ and is getting a $3.9MM check for what…..running our program into the ground! bThanks God that it is all about to come to a close and we have a good AD that will make the right hire!! The biggest thing in getting this straightened out was when Guenther finally got the hell out of Dodge! ILL-INI!! We are on the way back!

  9. Irony

    This is the last thing you wrote that I read. LOL at your take today.

    Bill Liesse
    SPORTS EDITOR

    Thursday, November 24, 2005

    It is a day to be thankful for what you are not.

    Be glad you are not a Kansas basketball fan, unless you enjoy 7th-place games at the Maui Invitational.

    Or you like letting a team that shot 28.3 percent beat you by 12, as Arizona did to Kansas on Monday in a game that should have Dr. James Naismith’s descendants considering a lawsuit. The Jayhawks countered with 27 turnovers to go with their 19 hoops and scored 49.

    Quick inventory of the Bill Self era: Played dumb when it was revealed that Roy Williams for years lavished his outgoing seniors with gifts, the epitome of the NCAA’s dreaded extra benefit not available to nonplaying students; lost to Bucknell in the NCAAs; canned a player who was involved in a nightclub stabbing; hired a wholly unqualified high school coach from Alaska to be “director of basketball operations” because his son happened to be a McDonald’s All American; revealed a booster gave a player upward of $5,000 worth of stuff during recruitment and time on the varsity; and found a way to get Brandon Rush in school and eligible despite not being on his list of possible places to go.

    Oh, and they’re out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since, like, before Wilt.

    Rock underdog, Jayhawk.
    http://www.pjstar.com/stories/112405/BIL_B87DRNM4.083.shtml
    mailto:bliesse@pjstar.com

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