Season now on Illinois' players

February, 24, 2012
The Illinois players need to forget about the coaching staff's fate and realize they can still go to the NCAA tournament.

This is on the players.

Coach Bruce Weber is likely out at season's end. No one has actually told Weber this yet, but according to those close to him, he wouldn't be surprised if it happens. He won't say it publicly and he shouldn't until the season is over. There have been enough public missteps recently.

Weber will get his $3.9 million buyout and decide what he'll do next. He's as genuine a coach as the sport has seen in some time. He could end up helping his good friend Chris Lowery at Southern Illinois (if Lowery is still employed), or could be a hot commodity for a school like SIU. Weber didn't suddenly forget how to be a head coach.

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Meyers Leonard
Damen Jackson/Icon SMIMeyers Leonard and the rest of the Illinois players still have a chance to make something of the season.

But the rest of this season isn't about him. He made his mistakes with this team, just like everyone else in the program should take ownership of the current slide. Weber had a chance to not be in this situation because he could have pushed for either the Oklahoma or Missouri openings last offseason. He had a chance at both. But he stayed loyal to Illinois. His family didn't want to leave Champaign, either, considering that one of his daughters is a cheerleader with the Illini. Weber could have made a play for Oregon the previous year, too, when that job went to Creighton's Dana Altman.

Weber stayed too long. He knows it. And it will ultimately be his undoing at Illinois. According to multiple sources, he hasn't met with relatively new athletic director Mike Thomas lately. Thomas, according to sources, hasn't been micromanaging with any of the basketball coaches as he had to take care of a football program, firing/hiring a new coach there.

If Weber is done, the speculation will be intense when the season is over as to whether VCU's Shaka Smart will be the first and only choice for this job. Thomas and Smart have a pre-existing relationship, and if Smart were to look to advance his career, this is a no-question move. If Smart went to Illinois, Chicago could end up being a pipeline to Champaign for talent. All of that speculation is for when the season is over.

How the final three games and the Big Ten tournament go is up to the players. Guys like Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul can decide if they want to play in the NCAA tournament.

This is up to them. The fate of the coaching staff is no longer an excuse. Beating Iowa and Michigan at home is more than doable. Wisconsin is hardly a team that is a lock at home this season after losing multiple games at the Kohl Center.

Playing the what-if game with Illinois isn't too difficult. If the Illini were to win these games, or at the very least two of the three, then the résumé would be enhanced since wins over Gonzaga, Michigan State and Ohio State are already in place.

Of course, losing nine of the past 10 games is hardly a ringing endorsement for a bid. And the way the second half played out at Nebraska didn't pass anyone's eye test.

But the season shouldn't be toast. Playing in the NCAA tournament can be a once-in-a-career situation for some of these players going forward. Who knows what will happen next season. Why not try to do something now?

There is no reason why this team should quit or take a pass on the rest of the season. They can't save the coaching staff. It's over. So go and play for yourselves, for the pride in your school and try to end your season on a high.

If the players continue the nosedive, then at this juncture they will have no one to blame but themselves.

The staff will continue to coach, even though the end is near. If the players want to have enjoyable memories from this season, they can still make them, beginning Sunday against a suddenly surging Iowa and then next week against Michigan and at Wisconsin.

It's up to them, not the staff.

Andy Katz | email

ESPN Senior Writer



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