Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Time to stop the bleeding

I’ve been wanting to post this for some time and with the recent news regarding recruiting, Jamar Smith and Quinton Watkins, now is the perfect time. Please note these are my personal opinions, not those of Good Hope Orange or Alma Mater. Below is my opinion on the current state of play for the Illinois hoops program and what needs to be done to right the ship.

Bruce Weber is a fantastic basketball coach. You don’t lead a team to the national championship game without being good at the x’s and o’s. Nor can you get there without great players. Weber had both. Hence his success.

However, since the title game against North Carolina, if there is anything else conceivable that could have gone wrong, I’m not sure what it is. Even though much of what has happened can’t be pinned completely on Weber, it’s time for Ron Guenther to step in and stop the bleeding. This program can still be successful with Weber at the helm but there needs to be a few course corrections in order to get there.

The biggest issue is recruiting. Many of the misses aren’t Weber’s fault. But that doesn’t change the reality that Illinois is two years removed from an appearance in the national championship game, an event that should have propelled the program’s recruiting ability into the upper echelon of programs nationwide.

Therefore it’s not unreasonable, in the wake of the magical 04-05 season, for fans and the university administration (of which Ron Guenther is a part) to expect Illinois to be in competition for the Big Ten title most every year and within striking distance of the Final Four every few years.

However, this is not the case.

It’s important to give a coach the benefit of the doubt. So I’ll use the premise that Weber did all he could with the Eric Gordon situation. However, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s consequences are extremely damaging.

Therefore, recruiting for the ‘08 class is a true measure of Weber’s capability in this area and so far the results are borderline disastrous as almost all of Illinois’ top targets, even those from within the state, have decided to play elsewhere. Two of them (one a legacy) are even headed out to Oregon.

Illinois’ current and future rosters consist of a hodgepodge of three-star recruits and JUCO players. Some of these players may turn out to do pretty well for Illinois but they are not the top flight players who don’t need insurance policies that Illinois should be getting.

Therefore, it’s not unreasonable, especially given the talent other Big Ten programs like Michigan State and Ohio State are bringing in, to expect Illinois to finish somewhere near the middle of the Big Ten pack the next few years. At a bare minimum we cannot expect Big Ten title runs year in and year out and the occasional Final Four, which, in this fan’s opinion, should be expected given the recent title run.

So what to do? It is time for Ron Guenther to step in and hire a Jimmy Collins-type recruiting assistant for the basketball program. This is the only way to stop the current bleeding.

It doesn’t matter if the current situation isn’t completely Weber’s fault. It doesn’t even matter if it was mostly out of his control. There is no more room for error. Without a course correction and a drastic improvement in recruiting the Illinois basketball program is going to be fighting to stay in the middle of the Big Ten standings year in and year out.

This should not be acceptable to anyone. Not to the fans. Not to the coaches. Not to the university administration. No one. Especially given the recent success of the program.

And, the ultimate success of the program should be laid at the feet of Guenther, who should have been aware of Weber’s recruiting contacts and prowess when he was hired. If he wasn’t, there is a problem with the athletic director.

Speculation time: Will this happen? I doubt it. My impression could be wrong and I would be happy if it is but both men don’t exactly seem to be open to change. Again, I hope I’m wrong.

Which leads me to the next situation: Jamar Smith.

Jamar Smith was convicted of a felony. I realize he has apologized for what he did but that doesn’t change the fact that Weber and Guenther were the ones fighting to have someone convicted of a felony stay on the team, even if he does have to redshirt a year. Therefore, what makes Illinois any different than the Miami Hurricane football teams of the 80’s or Bob Huggins’ Cincinnati basketball teams?


If this kind of publicity doesn’t make them wince, they must not care about the image of the university. I’d be awfully surprised if fans aren’t getting tired of seeing national headlines like this.

I realize all situations are different and sometimes folks deserve a second chance but this is a poor precedent to set for the university and the students, not only because of the DUI but because Jamar Smith is underage. I cannot think of an absolutely worse standard to set for a state university where it’s already difficult to control the booze flow, especially among those who are underage, than to let a high-profile athlete who is under 21 stay on the team after he commits a DUI.

The message this sends to students and student athletes is there are no consequences for their actions and as an alum I’m disgusted by it. Unfortunately this is the latest in a long string of problems our players have had with the law and until a tougher standard is employed, I’m afraid it won’t be the last.

In conclusion, it’s time for Ron Guenther to make a very serious mid-course correction in the Illinois basketball program and hire a recruiter who will close the Illinois border and bring the state’s best players to Champaign.

Guenther and Weber should also rethink their policy for Jamar Smith or at least toughen their policies in the future.

The ultimate success of Illinois basketball hinges on these two issues.

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