As an Illinois fan I've never been that vocal about my dislike of Bruce Weber or his coaching while he was here in Champaign, and there's a good reason for it. The truth is I never really had anything against Bruce Weber. Now, that doesn't mean I felt any differently than the majority of the Illini fan base when Weber was let go.
It was simply time to move on, and it was painfully obvious as we watched the Illini finish up last season.
Now, while I don't want to simply pile on Weber because the Illini are suddenly winning again, there was a quote from Brandon Paul in Jon Greenberg's column -- which is good and you should read the entire thing after you're done here -- about John Groce that stood out to me. While Paul doesn't come out and say anything directly, if you read between the lines of what he was saying about John Groce it becomes pretty damning of Bruce Weber and the coaching staff last season.
Paul was asked about why this team was able to get back up after being knocked down to the ground this season, unlike last year when it stayed on the mat.
"The coaches never gave up on us," Paul told Greenberg. "They want to see us succeed. They said, we've had this rough stretch but gotta fight through it. No one on the team gave up on each other."
Now, I don't know for sure that this is what Paul intended to say when he gave that quote, but when I read it I couldn't help but feel like Paul was implying Weber did give up on the team last season. Which, if true, helps explain why the team itself seemed to give up last year.
Because when you look at the roster of this year's team compared to last year, there's no real reason why this year's squad should be doing better.
The only players on last year's roster that had a usage rate of 15% or higher that are gone are Sam Maniscalco (15.6%) and Meyers Leonard (22.1%). No offense to Maniscalco, but the only real loss there is Leonard. This year the only player on the roster to see his usage rate experience a giant leap is Tracy Abrams, who has gone from 16.3% to 25.1%.
Now, while more Abrams at the point instead of Maniscalco can explain some improvement, it's not enough. Particularly when you are replacing a lot of Meyers Leonard's minutes with Sam McLaurin. I don't mean that as a knock on Sam, but it's rather hard to argue that Meyers wasn't the better player.
Which means that the only real difference between this year's team and last year's is John Groce and the new coaching staff. A staff that Paul says "never gave up on us" when a lot of people -- many of whom frequent this site, just read the comments of GameThreads during the struggles -- did just that.
And it seems more and more like Bruce Weber did last season. As I said earlier, though, I'm not saying this to pile on Weber. I do not think that Bruce Weber is a bad basketball coach. He had a lot of success here with this program, and while he benefitted early in his tenure with Bill Self's players, he still won a lot of games here. Now he's at Kansas State and winning there as well.
Now, before you go attributing Weber's success at Kansas State to Frank Martin, remember that Kansas State went 21-10 and 10-8 in the Big 12 last season. This year the Wildcats are 20-5, 9-3 and currently ranked #13 in the country.
Bruce Weber is not a bad coach, his success in Manhattan this year and in Champaign in the past proves that.
Unfortunately for Bruce it also helps prove that he did give up on this team last season.
Thankfully we gave up on him too.