By Paul Schmidt
Throughout the season, the up and down Illini have had by definition, problems with consistency. With desire. With attitude. With focus.
Their loss 72-53 loss to Ohio State at home on Sunday probably didn’t do anything to dispel that notion.
Still, one of the week’s big rallying cries was Bruce Weber for National Coach of the Year, for the job he has done remodeling this Illini team over the last month.
There certainly is some logic to that notion. Coming into Sunday’s loss, the Illini had won 5 in a row, climbed to the top of the Big Ten standings (this same notion would have been ridiculous as little as three weeks ago) and were looking like a force to be reckoned with not just in the conference, but in the national tournament as well this March.
The problem with this notion is that to say he’s now the best coach in the nation means you must also say he was coaching poorly (i.e., one of the nation’s worst) earlier in the season.
You could certainly debate whether or not that makes him a viable Coach of the Year candidate or just someone who’s public image shouldn’t be as shiny as it currently is.
Weber has admitted publicly on several occasions that he himself isn’t happy with the job he’s doing this season, and that he was really having trouble getting through to the team. In fact, he joked after the last-second Indiana win that benching McCamey to get his head focused was, “the one thing that I did right this season.”
Still, the good will built up by Weber and the new look Illini were looking great. A last second win against Indiana. A huge win against Michigan State at home with ESPN’s College Gameday in the house. A road win at Wisconsin in the Kohl Center, where unranked teams teams go to die.
Now comes this loss to the Buckeyes. To say the Illini were run out of their own gymnasium would be an understatement — It was the Illini’s worst home loss since the 1976 Hoosiers (a National Title team) slaughtered the Illini at Assembly Hall.
It was Weber’s quotes after the game that made one pause, however.
“I don’t know if we prepared as well as we should — maybe that’s human nature when everyone is telling you how good you are,” Weber admitted after the game.
“A few days can make a big difference in how you feel,” Weber also said. I think that we felt pretty good about ourselves, but OSU came out and took it to us from the get go.”
What about this game being one you can just forget about and move on from? Were there troubling parts to the game, Bruce?
“Oh, there were definitely things that happened that were troubling. We didn’t play on the defensive end liked we hoped,” Weber said. “Once the game really started going bad, instead of competing we got stagnant. Some of it was the game — we just couldn’t get anything going — and some of it was the frustration. It’s hard to turn that around once it starts.”
Ladies and gentlemen, does that sound like your coach of the year? Take away nationally, does that even sound like your Big Ten coach of the year?
While the last few games have been great for their NCAA profile, it’s obvious that Weber is still trying to figure this Illinois team out, even 26 games into the season. Until he does, any talk of an NCAA berth or tournament run — let alone bling for Weber’s mantle — is very premature.