CHAMPAIGN — A day after Bruce Weber criticized his own performance and his own players following a loss at home to Purdue, the Illinois coach tried to soften the blow.
“I spoke out of frustration following another difficult loss,’’ Weber said Thursday in a prepared statement. “I am disappointed in myself, as I said, for not developing a culture of toughness with our team up to this point in the season.’’
“As I told our team last night,’’ Weber continued, “we have a lot to play for over these last five regular season games as well as the Big Ten tournament. We still have an opportunity to make the NCAA tournament, and I’m looking forward to practice today and working with our players to help us reach that goal.’’
The Illini (16-10, 5-8 Big Ten) have lost seven of their last eight games and are in danger of missing the NCAA tournament for the third time in Weber’s nine seasons in Champaign. He has been under fire from fans who want Illinois to routinely challenge for Big Ten supremacy, not to mention a regular spot among the nation’s elite teams.
After the 67-62 loss Wednesday night to the Boilermakers, Weber sounded like a man who knows his job is done.
“You have to develop a culture and I think maybe the last three years all I did was worry about winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness,’’ he told reporters. “That’s my fault.’’
“It’s just sad,’’ he added. “I feel really bad for my staff.’’
The worst part might have been watching the Boilermakers — a tough team crafted by Weber’s former assistant at Southern Illinois, Matt Painter — sink clutch shots and get stops when the Illini couldn’t. Weber afterward went out of his way to say that guys like Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, Michigan State’s Draymond Green and Ohio State guard Aaron Craft would be dream players to coach.
Weber said he had that kind of team, that kind of culture, at SIU — gritty players who refused to lose. He led the Salukis to the Sweet 16 before moving to Illinois in 2003-04, taking over for Bill Self.
But at Illinois, he said, he has tried to recruit players and field a team designed to please others.
Weber’s praise for his own team was largely limited to freshman guard Tracy Abrams, who had a career-best 22 points and willed Illinois back into the Purdue game more than once. Abrams, who has already started to assume a leadership role, might just become the type of player Illinois lacks, Weber said.
“I think Tracy has a chance, he played with great heart tonight,’’ the coach said. “The problem is, he’s our leader (as a freshman). That’s the problem. He’s the one talking in the locker room after the game.’’
Meyers Leonard, a talented 7-foot-1 center, had two points and three rebounds at halftime despite being four inches taller than anyone on Purdue’s roster. Weber said Leonard, who finished with nine points and 12 boards, should have been benched weeks ago and ripped him for having “horrible body language.’’
Before Weber spoke Wednesday night, Joseph Bertrand, a sophomore who had 12 points and made a couple of big shots, insisted the loss didn’t finish Illinois.
“We’re not giving up it’s not over yet,’’ he said. “It’s a real tough stretch right now, but we’re staying together. We just really need to lock in and focus.’’
Weber’s outpouring earned him some sympathy from a fan base that’s been eagerly calling for his head, despite him taking the Illini to the national title game in 2005. Many have refused to give him credit for that, saying he led a roster that had been recruited by Self.
Athletic director Mike Thomas, who has already fired football coach Ron Zook in his first year on the job, was at the game but not at the press conference afterward. He was not taking calls Thursday as he traveled to Florida to meet with alumni, sports information director Kent Brown said.
“He just doesn’t feel like he can comment after every (loss),’’ Brown said.
Thomas has already said his standard isn’t just reaching the NCAA tournament, but getting a high seed and, as he put it in a recent radio interview, to “make some noise.’’
The Illini has five regular-season games left — including stops at Ohio State and Wisconsin and a home date with Michigan — plus the conference tournament to undo the damage of seven losses in the eight games they’ve played since upsetting Ohio State on Jan. 10.