Bruce Weber Seeks Football Mentality

The Fighting Illini basketball team needs to be more aggressive and physical. Coach Bruce Weber brought up the subject of football in Monday's press conference. He wants his players to think more like football players, enjoying physical contact and giving back more than they get. Until then, other teams will try to manhandle the Illini.

Illinois is a basketball team filled with skilled finesse players. They are adept at the open jumper, hitting a high percentage and looking pretty doing it. Too bad opponents don't want the Illini to shoot open jumpers all day long. If they did, the Illini would be a cinch Final Four team.

But the Illini won't even make it through the Big 10 schedule without more physicality than they've shown up to now. The conference is rugged, and teams use physicality to enhance their chances of success.

Georgia outmanned the Illini last Saturday, reminding everyone how important being aggressive every game can be. It seems whenever the Illini are favored in a game, they lack the motivation to play their best. Weber said his team was not prepared for the Bulldogs.

"The mental preparation is something that's got to change. Mental preparation is their psyche, their intensity, being geeked up, the chest bumps, hitting lockers, whatever you've got to do to get fired up."

Maybe instead of dancing to music in the locker room before games, they should be slamming into each other to acclimate to pain. Like fictional Klingon warriors, perhaps a good head bump would help. Basketball is no longer a game for wimps. Victory usually goes to the aggressors.

Illinois has a target on its back. A win over the Illini is a badge of honor for many teams. Weber explains why.

"I don't think our guys realize how important it is when other teams play Illinois. Illinois has been one of the top 20 programs for the last 10 years, maybe even higher than that. People watch us. Last year, we were on CBS three or four Sundays in a row.

"It goes back to Utah. They celebrated like they won a National Championship. The same for Bradley. And then the other night (Georgia), those dudes were running in the hallway screaming, hitting lockers. It's a big deal, and our guys don't realize it. That's what our guys have to live up to. They're gonna have to pick up their level from the get-go.

"I don't think our guys realize how hard they have to play every day in practice. If we're gonna make progress, that's got to start happening for it to carry over to games."

There aren't enough dominant basketball players to go around. Some of it is genetic. Weber thinks some of it is the pampered environment for young basketball players today.

"I think more and more kids these days, I'm not sure the toughness and aggressiveness is there as much. And then because of summer basketball, if the coach says something to them they change teams. That has changed kids."

If players don't have to be accountable every day, they slough off and become lazy and weak-minded. Without good coaching and a need to see it through to the end, the learning curve is minimal. Weber and other college coaches have to bring it out in the prima donnas they recruit. Weber believes it is possible to produce improvements over time.

"I think you can make kids more aggressive and tougher. I think the greatest example is Trent Meacham. He didn't want to take a charge when he got here, even if it was a manager doing it to him. But he won our award as a senior for courage taking charges. You just think of that transformation.

"It takes time, and they've got to understand it. We try to work on it in practice through competitive games and aggressiveness drills. So over time, the weight room, maturing physically, mentally maturing to being able to take contact (they make improvements).

"If you watch Tis (Mike Tisdale), he's crashing the glass. I don't want him to get too many touch fouls, but he is trying. Sooner or later, the ball's gonna come to him. Now, is he strong enough to grab it in a crowd and make the play? At least he's trying.

"He goes to the boards the most of anybody. The boxout, he's got to get a bigger base especially when it's a 260-280 pound guy. That's Mike Davis also. Dominique (Keller) should be the one. He's got the strongest body, the strongest base."

Basketball players with a football background can make a big difference for a team.

"One thing we don't have is somebody that's played football. If you go back to Tom Izzo's Michigan State teams, (several of his players) played football. All through our years at Purdue, we had guys that played football. It's a whole different thing.

(Chris) Kramer from Purdue. He's definitely the toughest in the Big 10 and one of the toughest in the country. He's a football kid originally.

"Kids grow up playing one sport. They play basketball 12 months a year, and they're more skilled, more athletic. But they probably don't have that toughness, that football mentality. So we've got to slowly but surely bring it out of them."

Weber is looking to recruit dominant players, but they are increasingly hard to find.

"I've told the coaches, but I just don't know where they are. I talked to Jerrance (Howard) about it. As a young coach, he says you can never have enough talent. Yeah, but you've got to have all the other things too. When you don't have all the pieces...

"People criticized Chester (Frazier), but his toughness went a long way. When he finally figured out what he was offensively, now he's a pretty good player for us. That's why I think it would be nice to get the big old strong guys. You could also use a physical guard too."

Of course, top football players often stick with football for college. Those that prefer basketball are highly coveted, and it is harder to get them on campus for recruiting purposes.

"When they do play football, it's tough to recruit them because we do a lot of recruiting in the fall. But I have been at football games before. Those kids might have to catch up skillwise. They lose four months a year of skill development. But, are you trading the toughness factor?"

Weber has managers pound his players with football pads on rebounding, screening, and putback drills. Even that doesn't always bring out the toughness others possess naturally. Some coaches have gone to outfitting their players with football shoulder pads, to remind them to be more physical.

"Yesterday (Monday), there was some physical contact in practice. But not with pads. Izzo has done the pads. Eddie Sutton has done the pads."

When Ray Eliot was the football coach at Illinois, he often said he hated the advent of the mask on the helmet because it took away from the manliness of the game. Weber wants physicality, so much that his philosophy regarding shoulder pads reminded of Eliot from that bygone era.

"To me, that's too easy. It doesn't hurt then because you have stuff protecting you."

If anyone can bring out toughness and aggressiveness in slender finesse players, it is Weber. But he needs to do it soon or he will be run over by others seeking perfection through physicality.

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