It's getting close to the end of the line for Illinois basketball and coach Bruce Weber. When No. 9 Illinois faces No. 8 Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Illini could be one loss away from a coaching change.
INDIANAPOLIS -- It's getting close to the end of the line for Illinois basketball and coach Bruce Weber.
When No. 9 Illinois faces No. 8 Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Illini could be one loss away from a coaching change.
During a three-week soap opera, athletic director Mike Thomas went on the radio and offered no support for Weber, who later took the blame for coaching not to lose days before his team suffered a teary-eyed meltdown in Nebraska.
The only way to the NCAA tournament is four wins and grabbing the league's automatic berth. Despite reaching the tournament championship as a No. 10 seed in 2008 and a No. 11 seed in 1999, that kind of run seems out of the question for these fragile Illini, who are expected to part ways with Weber whenever Thomas makes the call.
While the Illini haven't shown much emotion in winning just one of the past nine games -- and two of 13 -- Weber won't give up. Always a blue-collar underdog, Weber went recruiting Tuesday when Chicago prep powers Simeon and Whitney Young played in a Class 4A sectional with Michigan State's Tom Izzo and Duke's Mike Krzyzewski in the front row.
Weber acts like he knows what's coming.
"I would lie to you if I tell you it hasn't been difficult,'' said Weber, who led the Illini to their only national championship game appearance in 2005. "It overwhelms you at times. This is my life. This is my passion. I love to coach, love basketball, love working with kids.
"When it comes down to it, I'm the leader. That's my job. I've got to be there for everybody else. I don't think people realize the toll it's taken on our kids. Their spirit, their mindset, their future. My biggest priority is to help those guys.''
With an NIT berth on the horizon, "we're still going to have some kind of postseason,'' Weber said.
No one knows if he'll still be around.
"I would like them to have success, for their sake more than anything,'' Weber said. "But you have to go earn it, you have to take it.''
When the Illini met with the media Tuesday, they looked like they were headed to a funeral.
"It's tough,'' Illini guard Brandon Paul said. "Everything is going on right now. We're going to try to stay positive.''
The litmus test for the Illini comes early against Iowa guard Matt Gatens. The senior guard averaged 23.6 points over the past five games while shooting 58.5 percent from the 3-point line. If the Illini have any chance, stopping Gatens is job No. 1. Of course, that means leaving it on the court.
"We've got to do a better job of showing some heart, putting our heart out there on the court and playing with no regrets,'' said Illini guard D.J. Richardson.
With Paul clamping down, Gatens scored only seven of his 22 points in the second half when Illinois held on for a 65-54 win over the Hawkeyes in Assembly Hall on Feb. 26 in the only regular-season meeting between the two teams.
"Obviously, I would've loved to be more successful and win more, but we can go to Indianapolis and try to do something about that,'' Gatens said.
With a team that lacked chemistry in 2008 -- Weber's only losing record in nine seasons with the Illini -- the pieces came together in Indy. The Illini got a late basket from Chester Frazier to edge Penn State 64-63 in the first round, then upset No. 2 Purdue 74-67 in overtime behind hot-shooting freshman guard Demetri McCamey. After Minnesota knocked off Indiana and Eric Gordon in the quarterfinals, Illinois beat the Gophers 54-40 in the semifinals.
The Illini ran out of gas in a 61-48 loss to top-seeded Wisconsin with an NCAA berth on the line.
"You see it around the country from one year to the next -- a lot of craziness,'' Weber said. "Why not have the nice story be us? You have to go earn it.
"They have to reach deep inside. It's about pride and passion for the game. You have to let that pride make a difference in the game.''
Pride is about all the Illini have left.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter at @JohnSupinie.
No. 9 Illinois (17-14, 6-12) vs. No. 8 Iowa 16-15, 8-10)
10:30 a.m., Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis (BTN, Illini Sports Network)
ILLINOIS (17-14, 6-12) ppg rpg
F Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. 4.8 3.3
C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.4. 8.3
G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 15.0 4.9
G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 11.6 2.9
G Tracy Abrams 6-1 Fr. 4.3 2.3
IOWA (16-15, 8-10) ppg rpg
F Aaron White 6-8 Fr. 10.4 5.4
F Zach McCabe 6-7 So. 7.3 4.5
G Roy Devyn Marble 6-6 So. 11.1 3.8
G Matt Gatens 6-5 Sr. 15.7 3.8
G Bryce Cartwright 6-1 Sr. 6.1 2.1
Noteworthy: Illinois has a seven-game winning streak against Iowa, and the Illini have won nine of the past 10 games against the Hawkeyes. … This is the first meeting between the two teams in the Big Ten Tournament. … In the 65-54 win over Iowa on Feb. 26, Leonard came off the bench with 22 points and 14 rebounds. Paul also didn't start, getting 17 points on 5 of 9 shooting. … Illinois advanced to the semifinals in every year but 2006 and 2011. The Illini have never lost in the first round.
Key for Illini: Show some grit and play some defense, especially on Gatens.
Key for Hawkeyes: Get off to a fast start, then see if the Illini have the toughness to rally.
Key quote: "You can do something special to leave the season on a positive note. I hope that's the mindset of our kids.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Prediction: Iowa 66, Illinois 62