Weber defends final season with Illini

By Joshua Kinder

Taking over the Kansas State men’s basketball team is difficult enough right now, but for new coach Bruce Weber, he’s also had to answer to what exactly went wrong at his previous job, one he was fired from last month.

In all, Weber’s nine years at Illinois were successful, taking the Illini to a pair of Sweet 16s and the national title game during the 2004-05 season, losing to North Carolina.

Weber, who was introduced as K-State’s new leader on Saturday afternoon, was 210-101 at Illinois with six NCAA tournament appearances and one NIT.

But this past season, the Illini were just 17-15 and missed out on the NCAA tournament for the second time in three years.

Illinois started the season 10-0, but was just 7-15 to finish the year, ultimately leading to his dismissal on March 9, one day after his team lost its opening-round game of the Big Ten tournament.

“We had a young team — six freshmen and one returning starter,” Weber said Saturday. “We had eight straight games decided by four or less points. We won them early and didn’t win them late.”

Illinois was young, and much like the situation he inherited from former Illini coach Bill Self, the next coach John Groce is taking over a team that could prove to be pretty special in the future, as Weber’s 2011 recruiting class was ranked 11th nationally.

But with such a young team, Weber said so many close losses began to take a toll and his squad never adjusted to the growing pains.

“Ironically, I was told that if we had won two games in the Big Ten tournament, we would have been in the NCAA tournament,” Weber said. “Our RPI was high, we had eight or nine top-100 wins. Ohio State is playing (in the national semifinals) and we beat them.

“So, it didn’t all go wrong — there were some pretty positive things there. I felt like we had a great foundation of young players and I felt we could have had a pretty good team in the future.”

Weber will have to settle for being an Illinois spectator now, though, as he’s taken over a K-State team that’s coming off three straight NCAA tournament appearances and looks to return all but one starter next season.

The Wildcats return key seniors Rodney McGruder and Jordan Henriquez, as well as a couple pretty decent freshmen of their own in Angel Rodriguez and Thomas Gipson. Former K-State coach Frank Martin, who left for South Carolina, left the cupboard full for Weber.

Now, Weber just needs to find a way to win right away at K-State, just as he did at Illinois when he took over for Self and guided the Illini deep into the NCAA tournament his first two years there.

“We’re going to play a winning style of basketball,” said Weber, who is 313-155 in 14 seasons at Southern Illinois and Illinois. “My coaching tree, of course, goes back to (Gene) Keady and beyond that to Eddie Sutton. That is based on solid defense and great fundamentals — the same things that Tex (Winter) and Cotton (Fitzsimmons) did and all of the coaches through the years. That is why you have success. 

“Now, I hope that if you play good defense, you can push the basketball, and run and get the easy basket. So I would tell you, that it is going to be a style and philosophy of solid fundamentals… It includes solid defense, which will hopefully create offense.”

Weber will also have to do it with recruiting. The Milwaukee native recruited well to Illinois, nabbing nine Top-100 players the last three seasons. But Illinois was also the state school, much like Kansas is here — a team playing for the national championship tonight against Kentucky, led by, of course, Bill Self.

“I had that experience at Southern Illinois where no one knew us and we had to honk our horn to get anyone to pay attention to us,” Weber said. “Then 18 years at Purdue, a land-grant university just like K-State, we didn’t get the attention when we first got to there. Coach (Bobby) Knight was the coach.  He was a national champion and Olympic coach, but through that experience I learned so much from Coach Keady. 

“He had chances in that time to leave, but he didn’t because of his competitive spirit. He liked a challenge.”

Recruiting against Kansas will definitely be a challenge. It always has been for K-State, despite the series becoming more competitive in recent years under Martin’s leadership.

“We have an unbelievable rivalry with Kansas, which is one of the greatest in the country,” Weber said. “We had that rivalry when I was at Purdue with Indiana. The fans love it, now K-State hopes to win a few more games here to make it a better rivalry. I know that the guys have done better to make it a rivalry here the last few years. It is a challenge, no doubt. 

“It’s the reason why I coach and why I came to this level, to have a chance to be successful at the highest level. I think that everything is here for that and we have the passion to compete against the best. Kansas is a pretty good team…  and Bill is a great coach and we’re looking forward to that challenge.”

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