INDIANAPOLIS – Bruce Weber is done at Illinois. You know it, I know it and certainly he knows it.
He almost acknowledged that grim reality Thursday afternoon in the Illini locker room as this miserable season officially reached the point of no return with a 64-61 loss to Iowa in the Big Ten tournament.
"It's very hard," Weber said, his voice barely a whisper. "I'd be lying to you. I'm not sure why or what, but I'll talk when it's all … when it all settles down."
He was on the verge of saying "when it's all over." And that will be soon. There may be an NIT appearance for Illinois, and if there is, Weber said he'd like to coach the team. But even that is not guaranteed.
The only guarantee is that a coach who took Illinois to the 2005 national championship game – farther than the Illini ever have been – is on the way out. When Weber ran out of Bill Self's players, the results weren't the same. After Deron Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown left Champaign, Illinois became a mediocre Big Ten program.
The Illini's conference record with at least one of those three, during Weber's first three seasons: 39-9. Conference record since: 50-56.
Clearly, Weber didn't get good enough players to keep the roll going. He had Eric Gordon, then lost him to Kelvin Sampson and Indiana. The two best players out of the brass-knuckles recruiting ground of Chicago in many years, Derrick Rose and Anthony Davis, wound up with John Calipari. One took Calipari to the 2008 Final Four (since vacated) at Memphis. The other has a great chance of getting him there this season at Kentucky.
While Calipari was getting Rose out of Chicago, Weber was getting Demetri McCamey from the same area – a good player, but nobody's one-and-done lottery pick. While Calipari was getting Davis, Weber was getting Nnanna Egwu – a 6-foot-11 athlete with potential, but nobody's national Player of the Year candidate as a freshman.
When you don't have elite talent, you wind up with two NCAA tournament victories over the past six seasons.
That's not good enough, and Weber certainly knows it. First-year athletic director Mike Thomas will add him to the growing pile of jettisoned Illini coaches, alongside Ron Zook (football) and Jolette Law (women's basketball).
Needed as the change will be, it's not pleasant business. Weber has been twisting in the wind for more than a month, the pain of it all clearly evident as the Illini have gone 1-9 since January. He had painfully frank February news conferences that sounded like midseason post-mortems, as if he were giving up with games left to play. He changed the rhetoric after that but not the results – the losing continued.
"The game can be very humbling," Weber whispered in the locker room. "One of the things my parents instilled in me, I came from very little. I try to be humble. Life can be unfair sometimes."
Life certainly kicked the man while he was down Thursday against Iowa. Illinois shot zero free throws – yes, zero – in a Big Ten game. The Illini are a fairly soft bunch of jump-shooters, so they didn't deserve to go to the line a lot – but zero free throws? To Iowa's 19?
"Certain things, it's not meant to be," Weber said, avoiding a frontal attack on the officials.
But he did note a terrible call late against Minnesota that helped turn the game in favor of the Gophers in late January. That was a bad break. But good teams don't let bad breaks snowball, and the Illini meekly submitted to an avalanche this season.
By this Big Ten tourney, the defeatist attitude was so ingrained that Illinois seemed almost eager to collapse against Iowa. I've rarely seen a team plummet from seven points up to seven down as fast as the Illini did Thursday.
With a 44-37 lead at the 14:10 mark, Illinois surrendered a 3-pointer to Matt Gatens. Then Gatens swiped a soft inbounds pass from Brandon Paul and sprinted downcourt for a dunk. Less than four minutes later, Iowa was up seven and in control.
"You could just see our body language," Weber said.
He's right. The Illini all but crawled into a shell as soon as adversity struck.
Paul and center Meyers Leonard feuded over who was going to get shots on the offensive end, openly squabbling on the court and in huddles. Both seemed to let that affect them on the other end of the court, failing to block out or blowing defensive assignments. Leonard failed to get a single offensive rebound against the much shorter Hawkeyes.
Weber tried not to join his players in the crater postgame, but he wasn't very convincing. Writers who cover the team on a daily basis said he was as down Thursday as they'd ever seen him – which is saying something, given the mini-meltdowns in recent weeks.
Weber might be able to have a second act at Southern Illinois, where the job is open and he had success before moving to the Big Ten. And Illinois can take a swing at someone such as Shaka Smart, the rising star at Virginia Commonwealth. Both sides might come out of this OK.
But that doesn't make the reality of being fired any easier. It's all over but the announcement for Bruce Weber at Illinois.
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- Bruce Weber