Weber Seeks Championships With Integrity

The 2010-2011 version of the Fighting Illini basketball team will be ranked in the Top 25 in preseason polls. All five starters return, and there is excellent depth. A number of intangibles must be addressed, and the team may occasionally face superstar lineups of dubious origin. But if the players prepare properly, great success is possible.

Coaches like Bruce Weber at Illinois pride themselves on their honesty and integrity. They like the challenge of winning through intelligent recruiting and quality coaching while living within NCAA guidelines.

However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that a few coaches have learned ways of attracting superstars with minimal interest in an education. Rumors abound of players selling their services to the highest bidder, and the NCAA appears powerless to prevent it. Weber admits to frustration over the present situation in college basketball.

"Yes, it is. I don't know if it gets to me, but I've got to the point where, you've got to do it your way and feel good about yourself. We're not perfect by any means, but we try to do it right, as best we can.

"There's too many rules in the book. Everyone makes mistakes. But if you do it by mistake and not with the intent to do it, that's the thing. I think when you do it that way, and when you have success and longevity, to me it's much more rewarding."

Those who prefer honesty can attain success through those means. It may not be constant, but to them occasional rewards are worth all the hard work and perseverence. In contrast, if they were to cheat to win, they would know they didn't play fair and their satisfaction would be tempered with guilt.

Of course, some coaches aren't burdened by a sense of guilt and continue their questionable methods. It is this dichotomy that dominates college basketball. Weber and coaches of like mind were buoyed by this past Final Four, won ultimately by Duke.

"The thing that happened this year was the veterans got to the Final Four, with not as highly-touted kids. It was good for college basketball. The one-and-done guys got beat by the older guys. They weren't quite as good, but they were able to do that."

A veteran group returns to Illinois this year, and Weber hopes to take advantage. He has recruited well, and a couple of his players may eventually approach star status. But team chemistry is also important.

"Again, it's that fine line. The ideal thing is if we can get that superstar who wants to buy in and play hard. But you have to have a mix of guys. And the other thing is, you've got to have some upperclassmen. It makes it so much easier on you.

"Our freshmen were pretty good this year, but there were days when they struggled. I hope next year they're a little more consistent, and they won't struggle as much."

This past season, Weber admitted he was concerned about fragile egos among upperclassmen and tried to boost confidence rather than force change on his players. This year, he hopes better depth will provide sufficient competition to stimulate quality play.

"Any time you have competition and people push each other, no doubt it helps. I tried to hold them accountable at times last year, not starting them, putting other people in. I think it did some good, but they still were the older guys.

"I shouldn't have to do that with them, and I hope they do that on their own. That's why this summer will be really, really important."

Weber is more than capable of forcing his will on his players, insisting on standards of excellence with all aspects of play. He'd rather not coach that way as it usually indicates player limitations.

"You hope they learn on their own, and you don't have to pound it in. There's a term in Biology called 'osmosis,' where things pass through a membrane. I hope they learn by osmosis, it just seeps in there instead of me taking a hammer and pounding it in.

"Sometimes you've got to do it that way. But, when they figure out their role on their own, when they figure out what we're asking them on their own, they seem to play better and take more pride in it and understand it. That's when you get the ideal player."

The 2010-2011 version of the Fighting Illini basketball team has the athleticism, size and depth to compete. The upperclassmen have developed their skills, and the younger players have natural ability. But to reach lofty goals, subtle factors must also be present.

"The little things make the difference. In basketball there's the physical, the running and jumping. There is the skill. But the two intangibles that really make a difference are one the heart, how much they want it, how hard they play. Their competitive spirit.

"And the thing that really sets them apart is the understanding of the game. Understanding how to attack a zone and when to kick it. Understanding that if I give it up early, I'll probably get it back to get a shot. It's coming off a screen.

"Kobe (Bryant) not only is talented, gifted physically and skill-wise, but he also has a big competitive spirit. And he knows the game, loves the game and learns it. (Steve) Nash, all the great players are like that."

So how does all this translate into the upcoming season? Are all the cosmic tumblers in place for a great season and extended NCAA Tournament run?

"Who was in the Final Four? Who's in the final two of the NBA? The veterans, the older guys. Guys that understand. Hopefully, we have a mix of older guys and young talent, so this can be a special year."

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