Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Illinois Basketball: Approaching the End of an Era?

It pains me to write this, but it might be time for a new direction and new leadership in Champaign. I've liked Bruce Weber as a coach and a person for his entire tenure at Illinois, but the stagnant and perennially mediocre status of the Illinois basketball program has gone too far. In the last month alone, Illinois has beaten Ohio State, then lost to Penn State, beaten Michigan State, then lost to Northwestern. With fans and key boosters leaving in droves, there may be no alternative but to look for someone else to lead the program - even if it's not all Weber's fault. I hope that somehow, it doesn't have to happen that way, but there may be no other choice.

What seems to be the problem? There is no question that there is talent on Illinois' roster. Illinois has had a top 15-20 recruiting class for the past 3 seasons. The key players on the team - Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard, DJ Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams, etc. - were all highly recruited and sought after players. And certainly, their talent comes out, albeit in bursts. One real problem here is lack of execution of Bruce's offense. Weber, who runs a motion offense straight out of the old playbooks of Gene Keady and Bobby Knight, for some reason cannot get his players to play the system correctly.

With a motion offense, the key attributes that your team must be successful at to implement the system are spacing, timing, screening, and moving without the basketball. To combine all of these fundamentals into one coherent, well-oiled machine takes high-basketball IQ from the players. This is the type of system that allows teams with less talent to expose defensive weaknesses in more talented opponents. The theory is, you add great athletes to the system and you have an opportunity for even greater success. Here's an example of how it should be ran:

Just watch that video. The 2004-2005 Illini executed Weber's motion offense to perfection, resulting in a 37-2 season and a National Championship game loss. In my opinion, we haven't seen a dominating college basketball team like that in some time - much of it as a result of Weber's system. They have great timing with their passes, they space the floor remarkably well, they allow the big men to crash the middle to set low screens, but most importantly, they MOVE without the basketball. Watch the defense scramble the entire possession. That Illini team forced you to tire yourself out just to defend them on every possession. And I understand that yes, that team was loaded with talent. But was there really that much of a talent discrepancy that this Illinois team can be so bad at execution? Illinois should at the very least be in the upper part of the Big Ten with a little execution, instead of their middling place in the middle of the pack.

The players for some reason can't execute his system
If you watch this team, they do not illustrate high basketball HQ on a consistent basis. Focus for a minute on Brandon Paul. As fans, and almost certainly this applies to Weber as well, we get continually frustrated by his insistence on launching horrible three-pointers. We know how athletic he is and want him to penetrate far more often than he shoots threes. The problem, of course, is that on most possessions, there is no opportunity for penetration because Illinois does not space the ball. On most possessions, Illinois centers Leonard deep on the block, looking to feed the ball to the uber-athletic big man. But what else happens? You have players like Bertrand and Richardson still unable, after THREE YEARS IN THE PROGRAM, to stay away from the paint. See, when they try to move without the ball, perpetually heading from wing to wing, they crash their own defender into the paint. This prevents any penetration from players like Paul, because the help defense is already there to meet him;  essentially they don't even have to come help. What made the 04-05 team so special is that players like Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head understood the basic mechanics of spacing and screening within the motion offense. The ability of them to move without the basketball, in conjunction with beautiful screens set by James Augustine and Roger Powell, consistently created easy baskets and open jump shots. This Illinois team does none of this well.

On any random possession you will see the problems that plague this team. They are a horrible screening team. The one player Illinois needs to be good at it (Leonard) is simply awful, getting called for moving screens nearly every game. Leonard is just one of the players that exhibits poor basketball IQ, and that's ignoring his deficiencies on defense. I've already talked about how Illinois is awful at spacing the floor and creating opportunities, the end result of which is a complete mess on offense that leads to bad three point attempts. In addition, Illinois is a bad passing team with poor IQ, which then leads to bad turnovers and easy baskets for the other team. And when you see this nearly every game, you start to wonder whether this problem falls upon the players' shoulders or Bruce's.

This group of players love Coach Weber. They'll be the first to tell you that it's their fault. But really, how much of this problem is Weber's fault, and more to the point - does it matter? Since Dee Brown graduated, Illinois has been the golden standard for mediocrity. This is just unacceptable. I've always maintained, and so have others, that Illinois could be and should be a consistently top program. They've been one of the more successful programs of the past few decades. They have a top-notch recruiting base in Chicago, they have boosters and alumni who want to love the program, and they have a huge fanbase both surrounding Champaign and in the Chicago area. There is no question that this team could be a national player, and should be, more often than not. And why shouldn't it be? Of course, programs like Duke and North Carolina are always successful. But is there a reason the Connecticut, Syracuse, Louisville, etc. are good every year and Illinois has not been? There's a good argument that much of that falls on Weber.

How different would it be with Gordon?
After Dee left, Illinois struggled for a couple years, both recruiting and on the court. Weber's recruiting took a huge hit when Eric Gordon left the Illini at the altar. Gordon committed right at the cusp of the Illinois success of the 2004-2005 season. Yet, the following year, when he would have been signing with Illinois, Gordon decommitted, throwing a wrecking ball into Weber's post-Dee plans and ruining recruiting for a couple years. With a player like Gordon, the gap from the elite Illini teams of 2004 and 2005 would have been bridged. Not only would he have been a great player for Illinois, if only for one year, but it would have sent a message to recruits that Illinois (and moreso Bruce Weber) was here to stay. But Weber, with that one swing and miss, doomed himself for the next few years. Weber scrambled, but out of the entire recruiting classes of 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008, only two major impact players were developed, Demetri McCamey and Chester Frazier. Starting in 2009, Weber recovered to land the class headlined by Brandon Paul, but the point is that for too long, Weber did not land complete, cohesive classes to lead the program. There is just no balance. Right now, we need a great point guard to lead this team. Tracy Abrams is starting to become that, and I believe he'll be a great college basketball player before it's over, but Sam Maniscalco has been a huge bust and for a team that doesn't pass well already, not having a good point guard is bad for business. Then take the McCamey era, when we had a good point guard, and there wasn't much else on the team. Without consistent recruiting until recently, there was no balance to the team.

It's not Weber's fault that Gordon fled at the last minute. But it is Weber's fault for not having a backup plan and for not recruiting well for 4 entire years. Now, he has Jerrance Howard, recruiter extraordinaire, to tap into Chicago, but we still do not do so with much success. It was only until the incoming freshman class, with 4 top prospects from Chicago, that Weber has reached into the lucrative Chicago market and grabbed good players. But just look at some of the elite players to come out of both Chicago and the entire State of Illinois since the 2004-2005 team, and you get an idea of what we've missed out on: Julian Wright, Jerel McNeal, Sharron Collins, Jon Scheyer, Derrick Rose (great friends with AAU teammate Eric Gordon and seriously considered Illinois until Gordon fled), Evan Turner, Jacob Pullen, Iman Shumpert, Anthony Davis, Ryan Boatright, Wayne Blackshear, Sam Thompson, Chasson Randle, among others. This doesn't include the players that Weber did get to commit but didn't develop or contribute like we thought they would. This includes 2/3 of the 2010 class (Crandall Head transferring, and the Jereme Richmond saga), Tyler Griffey in the 2009 class, no one in the 2008 class because that class is nonexistent, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale, and Bill Cole in the 2007 class, and no one in the 2006 class. So, if you're keeping track, Weber's success rate in recruiting has been awful.

Part of the reason is that these players have a hard time cracking the lineup. Playing time is at a premium, and it's almost to the point that Weber feels so much heat on his seat that he simply does not trust his bench players enough to play them, and the result is that they don't develop. If he went to his bench more, maybe in the future we'd know we could rely on players like Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, Nnanna Egwu, etc. And I think that Weber's desperation is part of the problem on the court as well. He doesn't sit back and let his players play. Listen to any game and he's almost begging and pleading with these players to work the system. The players feel the pressure too, and the result is a shaky house of cards in every game. When that plays into a .500 conference record and pure mediocrity, it's hard not to think that new leadership is required.

I like Bruce Weber. He's a great man, a good coach notwithstanding the problems he's faced here lately, and the type of guy that is great as the face of a program. He also loves Illinois and would love to coach here the rest of his life. And if you fire him, it would be a devastating blow to Illinois' chances to grab many prospects in the elite 2013 recruiting class in this state. But whether AD Mike Thomas gives him a chance is a different question. The problem here is that the program is just stagnant, moving neither up nor down. When Thomas took the job he promised accountability in both football and basketball. He delivered by firing Ron Zook in football. He must see like the rest of us that the Illinois basketball players can't implement Bruce's system. They flail about, not setting picks, not moving without the basketball, not passing well, and all in all illustrating bad basketball intelligence.

How much of that is on Weber is only part of the tale. When Thomas sees rich boosters and students leaving seats empty at Assembly Hall, he knows that Weber's greatest threat to his job isn't the turnovers, the bad passes, the lazy defense, or lack of execution - it's apathy. For Illinois to get back to and then maintain national power status, this attitude towards the program cannot suffice. It would be hard for me to see it happen to Bruce, given what he's done for Illinois early in his tenure, how good of a guy he is, and the potential I still feel the program has under his leadership. But really, the program is bigger than one man, and the program is suffering right now. And the end result may be, fair or not, to blame Weber for the struggles and move on. I can only hope that his players recognize this and go on a run this year that cements the future of the program, gets butts back in the seats, saves Weber's job, and creates some momentum for a program that could desperately use some.