Smile Politely

Zook’s firing leaves questions on the hardwood

Ron Zook’s firing overshadowed a meaningless basketball game. Whispers abounded among the (9,000?) attendees of Sunday’s “contest” with hapless, 0–6 Chicago State.

Among the media, everyone continually checked his iPhone for confirmations & updates. We noted the absence of SID Kent Brown from his usual spot on press row.

The game went as expected, a 90-43 blowout that wasn’t as close as the score indicates.

Everyone got minutes. The freshmen looked especially capable of playing fast-paced, pressure basketball. Tracy Abrams zipped passes to the low post, just like a point guard oughta. Myke Henry’s allergy to the ball had him shucking it toward the hoop almost as soon as it hit his skin.

Sam Maniscalco shared his sage observations, afterward.

There were some bad moments, too, mostly in the pivot. Following a massive dunk, Meyers Leonard flexed his arms and posed for a victory portrait. His man ran to the other end for an easy lay-up. Mike Sanzere whistled Ibrahima Djimde for a flagrant foul, and then shared a laugh about it. Nnanna Egwu collected his four fouls in 14 minutes.

Two recruits watched the proceedings. Pekin’s Nathan Taphorn is still undecided. Mike LaTulip will string ’em up for the Orange & Blue.

They shared their thoughts during halftime:

But the real story is Mike Thomas.

During the first half, Jeni Thomas and son Joey greeted Megan and Hannah Weber. Jeni shared the news that the Thomases will be building in Urbana. (Bully for them!) Across the street, Mike Thomas applied the finishing touches to his Zook Firing presentation. At this level of competition and dollars, hiring and firing aren’t affected by pleasantries or even friendships. I thought it was a nice gesture for Mrs. Thomas to make on a day of DIA turmoil. In the long run, feelings matter. But not in relation to tenure.

The single season of Zook & Thomas, and the tone of Thomas’s remarks Sunday afternoon, make plain that the new AD means business.

Bruce Weber’s tenure strongly resembles Ron Zook’s. The successes and failures are similar. One reached a Rose Bowl, the other a Final Four. Neither was ever in danger of winning it.

If you exclude the transitional years which tarnish and burnish each coach’s overall record, respectively, these two are the same coach. Ron Zook took over a Yugo and built it into a Pinto. The former didn’t run at all. The latter works, and looks kind of cool, but explodes at inopportune times.

Bruce Weber took over a Jaguar and turned it into a Ford Aerostar. It’s comfortable for the family, and has little appeal to anyone else. A few short years ago, the glamour surrounding Illini basketball had ticket-seekers signing up for a waiting list. Now the DIA is trying to sell $5 seats.

Those extra thousands of absent spectators are not big basketball fans. They follow trends, and seek Happenings. That’s an indictment of their character, perhaps. Fair weather and such. But their character is irrelevant to the DIA, which just wants their money.

Bruce Weber needs to win now. So far this season, he’s done an excellent job managing his team and its competing systems. Against Chicago State we saw the long bench. We saw the full-court pressure applied by by fleet footed youngsters with quick hands and fresh legs.

As the competition improves, we’ll see fewer and less of the young guys. The older, and frankly slower players will dominate the PT, and their physical limitations will negate the possibility of an up-tempo game. On the bright side, that strategy might secure more wins.

So it doesn’t matter whether you like or dislike Bruce Weber. It doesn’t matter whether you believe him to be, or whether he truly is, a “great X’s & O’s coach.” He averages 14 losses per year because Tennessee State and Miami of Ohio beat him at home. Tom Crean’s Gang of Rudys beat him at Indiana. UIC beat him in Chicago. These losses are all arguably worse than the Zook failures against awful Minnesota teams.

But that’s all in the past, right? Well, Bruce Weber had better hope so. The Zook firing should send a chill down Weber’s spine.

His (perceived) Asperger’s syndrome is forgiven by kindly liberals and compassionate conservatives alike. They’re sufficiently progressive to tolerate his quizzical Tourette’s outbreaks, and the tendency to draw what few plans he has on his own face. For many stalwart attendees, even the losing is not a problem because they really like Bruce Weber and think he’s a good guy. And as the door closed on Ron Zook, we learned that none of that matters.

Mike Thomas made it clear. He demands “winning at a high level, winning Big Ten championships and being a national player.” That described Illinois during the Reagan, Clinton and early Dubya years.

Recruiting took a huge hit on June 23rd. Illinois was 0 for 5 on placing eligible players in the NBA Draft. The failure to develop Demetri McCamey, or any of the 2006-07-08 big men; the final (?) perplexity of the Jereme Richmond Saga fed directly into the hands of rival programs. These outcomes give pause to potential Illini recruits, even without whispering from competing coaches. It was good to see Kendrick Nunn in the stands a couple of weeks ago. Will we see any of Chicago’s 2013 big men making visits?

With UNLV’s victory over top-ranked North Carolina, and with Missouri’s dash from the gate, Illini fans stand a real chance of watching third straight losses in both the annual United Center game and the Braggin’ Rights series. If that happens, you can bet that Christmas at the Weber house will be internet and radio free.

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