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The slipper didn't fit the Illini. Any chance of it fitting disappeared long before Sunday's decisive loss to Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament final. A basketball program doesn't quite qualify as Cinderella when it flounders about in complete disarray for more than a year.

The last straw was a quiet announcement made late last month. That was when Brian Carlwell, who starred as the man in the middle for strong Proviso East teams just a few years ago, announced he was leaving the U. of I. Conveniently enough less than two weeks later, Coach Bruce Weber used the newly available scholarship to pick up a commitment from a typical junior college quick fix. Dominique Keller is a 6-7, 235-pound forward who averaged 25 points and 9 rebounds for Lee Community College in Baytown, Texas this season. He promises to add desperately needed toughness to Illinois' front line next year.

So here's where Illinois stands now. Potential star shooting guard Jamar Smith, who in February of last year drove drunk through an ice storm despite a specific warning from his coach, trashed his vehicle and Carlwell and then left his teammate in the car to die alone not once but twice before someone else finally called 911 and saved him, will play for the Illini next season. Carlwell will not.

Weber, who fought valiantly to keep Smith in his program when so many other coaches would have given him the boot in a heartbeat, may have had a moral compass at one point. But it was obliterated in the last couple year by his willingness to let things go if doing so might generate wins.

The main reason Illinois stunk this year was its guards' limitations. The most promising of the bunch, freshman Demetri McCamey (who turned in that great performance against Purdue in the tournament quarterfinals on Friday) can light it up from beyond the arc. But the St. Joseph (Westchester) graduate is under-sized and his defense is, at best, shaky. Junior Chester Frazier can't shoot. Fellow junior Trent Meacham lacked confidence all year despite it being clear all year that he was the team's best shooter. And of course star freshman guard Eric Gordon went to Indiana instead of Illinois last year. And there aren't any major impact guys coming in as freshmen for the 2008-09 season for goodness sake.

So the Illini will need Smith next year - big time. And Weber knew this. And in what could only be described as a final, twisted master stroke, Weber arranged for Smith to receive a highly unusual red shirt for this year. Red shirts are, of course, usually reserved for preserving the eligibility of players who suffer serious injuries. But here, Smith is doing nothing but serving an unofficial year-long suspension. And he is doing it without losing a year of eligibility. By the time next season rolls around, the furor will die down, most people will forget about what he did and Weber will have more of a chance to pile up more wins.

Athletic Director Ron Guenther asserted last week that the Illinois men's basketball program was in great shape. Ron, willful denial of reality doesn't accomplish anything other diminishing your credibility, severely.

* Weber's inability to do the right thing was again on display, in vivid detail, last month during the disgrace that was the Illinois-Indiana game. That was the game when Gordon, who had committed the sin of changing his mind about which college he would attend when he was 17 years old, made his only trip to Champaign. The coach has rarely missed an opportunity to talk about how much Gordon's change of heart hurt the Illini, not just because Gordon didn't join the Illini, but also because other recruits took a pass on the team because they thought Gordon would be getting all the attention. This doesn't make a ton of sense because people have been talking about Gordon going to the NBA as quickly as possible since his junior year of high school - everyone knew he was only going to college for one year and, sure enough, at this point he projects as a top 10 pick in the draft this summer. Were Illinois recruits really lost because Gordon was going to get a lot of attention for a year? But anyway.

So as a highly disappointing season wound down there was only one thing left for the Illinois student body to do: heap derision on the guy their coach had told them had destroyed their team's chances. And then before the game even started, during the introduction of the lineups, a time when one player from one team is announced, followed by one from the other, the heat was turned up even further. The second player typically goes over to the first, they slap five and then the players return to spots in front of their benches. But Illinois' Frazier had a different plan. After he was introduced, he ran over to Gordon and ran into his chest with his shoulder. I know that sometimes college basketball players greet each other that way these days. But it is, of course, no good when one player is doing the bump and the other isn't.

What Weber should have done at this point could not have been clearer: he should have put Frazier on the bench. But how would that have helped Illinois win? And when fans wouldn't stop chanting "Fuck you Gor-don," Weber should have taken the public address microphone in hand and told them to cut it out, to try to not embarrass the university quite so much. But again, if the crowd hadn't been quite so rabid, it almost certainly wouldn't have unnerved Indiana as much as it did, at least for a little while. Illinois eventually got its just desserts, though. Missed free throws did the team in and they lost in overtime.

* It wasn't surprising Smith didn't take Weber seriously, by the way, when Weber warned him not to drink and drive early on that February evening last year. The previous fall, senior Rich McBride had been busted for drunk driving. His punishment? He was suspended for six meaningless, non-conference games. He returned in plenty of time to be ready for the games that mattered - Illinois' Big Ten slate. Other Illini basketball players were also assessed lenient penalties for all manner of transgressions in the several years prior to McBride's offense.

* And finally, there's a big ol' reason it just shouldn't be that hard for Weber to figure out what to do in these sorts of situations. There's a guy with an office right down the hall who has it figured out. A couple of Illini football players were caught with stolen merchandise last year. Coach Ron Zook kicked them off the team faster than Rashard Mendenhall hits a hole. Maybe Bruce noticed Zook's winning percentage last season? There are some coaches who do the right thing and win plenty. Miraculous, we know.


Jim Coffman appears in this space every Monday.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021