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CHAMPAIGN — They say time flies when you're having fun, and if you're a University of Illinois basketball fan, you've been having a whole lot of it lately.

That must be why even though Bruce Weber has been Illinois' head basketball coach for a relatively short period of time, the numbers already are starting to pile up. And they're piling up in some very impressive ways.

The cover of this season's Illini media guide shows seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine standing among a gaudy collection of hardware, towering pillars of gold that commemorate some of the program's recent achievements.

Four of the last five and five of the last eight Big Ten Conference championships have a home in Champaign, so what we refer to as "recent" success actually stretches back to the 1997-98 Big Ten title won in Lon Kruger's second season as head coach.

It includes a pair of Big Ten championships won while Bill Self was the coach, but the numbers that quantify just how successful the Illini program has become really come into focus over the last two-plus seasons since Weber arrived on the scene.

Some of them might surprise even the most ardent Illini fans.

For instance, did you know that Weber is the winningest coach in the nation over the last four-plus seasons? Since the beginning of the 2000-2001 season, Weber has won 126 games, recording 52 victories in his final two years at Southern Illinois and 74 in his first two-plus seasons at Illinois.

He leads Duke's Mike Krzyzewski by one victory during this time period.

And did you know that Illinois and Duke are the only two schools in the country to win at least 25 games in each of the last five seasons?

If it seems like Illinois wins practically every time out, that's because Illinois has done little but win lately. Illinois' record in the last 51 regular-season games is 50-1, a winning percentage of .980. That's an almost unreal achievement when you consider that stretch includes two victories over Michigan State, two over Wisconsin, two over Indiana, two over Georgetown, two over Oregon, and one each over Gonzaga, Wake Forest, Missouri, Cincinnati, North Carolina, Wichita State and Xavier.

While some teams lose twice in the same weekend, Illinois has lost just twice in the last 634 days.

Since taking over as head coach at Illinois on April 30, 2003, Weber has coached Illinois in 83 games. That's regular-season, Big Ten Conference Tournament and NCAA Tournament games. His total in the loss column has still not reached double figures with an overall mark of 74-9.

Under Weber Illinois is 33-1 at home and its current 27-game Assembly Hall winning streak is the third longest home court string in the country. Illinois also has the nation's second-longest nonconference home court winning streak at 44 games. That's behind only Oklahoma's string of 45 in a row.

While talking Monday about Wednesday night's annual Busch Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis, Missouri coach Quin Snyder lauded Weber and the Illini, who will arrive there with an 11-0 record and No. 6 national ranking. Even if he was trying to set a trap to benefit his underdog Tigers, Snyder's point was well made.

"I think Bruce Weber, in our profession, is one of the best guys around," Snyder said. "He's done a great job molding their team. (Overall success) is something they have enjoyed quite a bit the last couple of years. They have been arguably the best team in college basketball."

Labels like "the best" are confirmed with national championships, and Illinois came within a whisker of doing that last season, losing to North Carolina in the title game.

This season was supposed to be at least a moderate step back, even with the return of seniors like Dee Brown and James Augustine. But so far, Illinois has won 'em all and done so in just about every way conceivable — close games, blowouts, on the road, at neutral sites and at home. They've had different heroes and won with great defense and with excellent shooting.

The common denominator is that they've won. And won and won and won.

It's something we've come to expect from the Illini program, especially under Weber's watch. Just check the numbers.

Maybe someone should mark this place in history. I can't say for certain that these numbers are a high-water mark, but it's difficult to imagine them ever getting much better. Any way you describe it, Illini fans are clinging to Bruce Weber's coat tails, taking a thrill ride on an unprecedented wave of success that they feel will carry them at least into the new year.

Mark Tupper can be reached at mtupperyayayherald-review


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