Any lingering doubt regarding Bruce Weber's future at Illinois likely vanished Wednesday night when the reeling Illini spiraled further out of NCAA tournament contention.
First Illinois fell 67-62 to fellow bubble team Purdue, the seventh loss in eight games for the Illini. Then Weber unloaded years of regrets and frustrations during a postgame news conference that felt more like a concession speech.
Under fire from fans dissatisfied that the program has slipped from the top of the Big Ten to the middle of the pecking order, Weber said he erred by coaching to save his job the past three years rather trying to make players better for the future. In particular, he noted that he regretted keeping sophomore center Meyers Leonard in the starting lineup all year rather than disciplining him for lackluster effort and "horrible body language."
"The sad thing about the whole thing, and I guess it's my fault, is instead of creating toughness and developing a team, I coached not to lose all year," Weber said.
"Instead of developing people, I'm worried about winning. Maybe sit Meyers down three weeks ago or a month ago or two months ago. And Brandon (Paul). But that's my fault. You've got to develop a culture and I think the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness. And that's my fault."
Weber's willingness to reflect on his past mistakes without provocation seems to reflect that he realizes he cannot survive missing the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years. The Illini (16-10, 5-8) aren't out of contention yet, but a sub-.500 Big Ten finish seems inevitable considering their final five games include a home date against Michigan and visits to Ohio State and Wisconsin.
Based on what Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas told the Chicago Tribune even before the Illini's most recent two losses, it appears even slipping into the NCAA tournament may not be enough to keep Weber in Champaign. "It's our goal to be relevant through Big Ten play," Thomas said. "It's not a question of being in the tournament. That should be a given. It should be what seed."
Weber, who reportedly turned down interest from Oklahoma last offseason, likely wishes he'd shown more interest in that job. He lamented that his players weren't more like Purdue's Robbie Hummel, Michigan State's Draymond Green or Ohio State's Aaron Craft, three guys Weber said he wishes he could coach "because they really, truly care about the team and winning and that's the most important thing for them."
"Sooner or later, (Illinois' players) have got to take accountability and do things that they practiced," Weber said. "It still comes down to myself and the staff. If they're not doing it, I guess we're not instructing them well enough."
Maybe Weber still hopes to motivate his players with his criticism, but the problem with his comments is it sounds like he's given up. Considering five Big Ten games and the conference tournament remain, it's a little premature for that.
The last time any coach sounded as defeated Weber did by mid-February, it was Steve Lavin suffering through a dreadful 19-loss season in the final year of his tenure at UCLA.
In a surreal press conference late in that 2002-03 season, Lavin responded to a question by rattling off a list of coaching candidates who he thought might succeed him even though he technically hadn't been fired yet. Another couple losses, and Weber might be facing a similar line of questions.
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- Bruce Weber