- Scott Powers, ESPN Staff Writer
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Illinois has seemingly done just enough to get into the NCAA tournament as of today.
The question going forward now that the Big Ten season is nearly halfway through is whether just enough will be just enough for Illinois coach Bruce Weber to retain his job.
Reaching the tournament has traditionally given coaches job security. Going dancing from one of the big six conferences typically requires winning 20-plus games, defeating a few ranked opponents and finishing in the top half of the conference. With those results, a team is typically among the top 30-45 teams in the country.
Weber has accomplished that throughout most of his nine seasons at Illinois. He’s on pace this year to win 20-plus games and finish in the top half of the Big Ten for the eighth time and reach his seventh NCAA tournament.
At most schools, that would be plenty.
At Illinois, the feeling is, it’s not.
The standards for success aren’t the same at Illinois as they are for even most of the Big Ten. The NCAA tournament is currently a benchmark for Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nebraska, Northwestern and Penn State. If Weber had accomplished what he has at Illinois at any of those schools, he’d be praised.
Those same accomplishments have people calling for his job at Illinois.
Winning is considered the bare minimum in Champaign; Illinois fans are accustomed to it.
Since 1980, Illinois has been one of the most consistent programs in the country.
Lou Henson set the bar by getting the Illini to compete regularly for the Big Ten title and at least get through a few rounds of the NCAA tournament. Eight times Henson’s teams finished in the top 3 of the Big Ten, reached the Sweet 16 four times and made one Final Four appearance. Even in Henson’s last five subpar seasons, Illinois went to three NCAA tournaments.
Lon Kruger followed Henson and reached the NCAA tournament’s second round in three of his four years with the Illini.
Bill Self came next. His tenure showcased the programs true potential. He won two Big Ten championships, finished second once, won six NCAA tournament games and reached the Elite Eight and Sweet 16 in three years in Champaign.
Comparably, Weber began his career looking like he was going to carry Self’s torch. The Illini went 26-7 overall, 13-3 in the Big Ten, won the Big Ten and reached the Sweet 16 in Weber’s first year. In his second season, Illinois was 37-2, won the conference and lost in the national championship game to North Carolina.
Since then, Weber and the program have dropped off. In the last seven seasons, Illinois has gone 59-52 in conference, failed to reach the NCAA tournament twice and hasn’t advanced past the second round.
Illinois’ last four coaches have proven the Illini can be among the top 10 programs in the country. What is expected now is for it to be consistently there. By all accounts, Illinois should be in the same sentence with the likes of Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, Michigan State, North Carolina, Ohio State and Syracuse.
Part of that equation is recruiting. Illinois is as packed any state with high school talent. If you can win Illinois in recruiting, you can compete for a national championship. Kansas won a title with Sherron Collins. Duke won a title with Jon Scheyer. Memphis finished second with Derrick Rose. Kentucky is likely to be near there with Anthony Davis this season. Upcoming recruits Jabari Parker and Jahlil Okafor could have the same effect.
Which brings us back to the opening question. While Weber has won consistently, won big early in his tenure, but not lately, could his job still be in jeopardy even if Illinois reaches the NCAA tournaments and bows out quickly?
There isn’t much precedent of coaches getting dismissed in tournament seasons. Most coaches who are fired after reaching the NCAA tournament come as a result of a NCAA violation or an off-the-court incident. Bruce Pearl, Bobby Knight, Jim Harrick, Todd Bozeman and Dana Kirk fall into that category.
Former Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio is a rare case. He was fired for not winning enough in the postseason. He reached the NCAA tournament in 2009 and 2010 and won just once.
Wake Forest athletic director Ron Wellman said then, “This was not a decision based upon a one-year performance. We can put up with a disappointment. We have disappointments all the time. But there is a pattern here that needed to be addressed, a three-year pattern that needed to be addressed.”
Illinois first-year athletic director Mike Thomas has made his expectations clear since he was hired last year. He first said he aiming for conference and national championships and then showed that when he fired Ron Zook because Thomas didn’t feel the football program was headed in that direction.
“I believe we need new leadership to take the program to the level to compete for championships on a consistent basis,” Thomas said then. “This is an extremely competitive conference, and we are determined to go head-to-head with the very best.”
One can only imagine the basketball program will be evaluated in a similar fashion after the season.
All is it not lost, however. Weber still has time to prove himself. Illinois stands 15-5 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten, which puts the Illini in fifth place with 11 conference games and the conference tournament remaining.
If Weber can win big the rest of the way, there’s nothing to worry about. If he doesn’t and exits the NCAA tournament early again, he’ll have to wonder, “Did I do enough?”