CHAMPAIGN - If you were living in Tibet and all you saw were the Big Ten Conference basketball standings - no highlights, no commentary, no details - you'd probably conclude the Illini were having a pretty decent season.
Honest fans would likely agree that if Illinois had a 15-5 record 20 games into this season it would be a reasonable effort. It might even be more than reasonable when you factor in the wobbly ankle that has ground Sam Maniscalco to a virtual halt, leaving the team with no experienced point guard while starting two juniors, two sophomores and a freshman.
In the highest-rated league in the country, 15-5 is hardly a reason for a fan meltdown.
Yet very few fans seem able to enjoy this basketball team. Based on the feedback I get (and I get a bunch), most fans have very little faith in this team and I've concluded it's a mass mutiny of support based not on the record, but on the erosion of faith in coach Bruce Weber's ability to guide the program forward.
In many circles the discussion is no longer whether Weber should continue as head coach, it's who should replace him and whether AD Mike Thomas will be inclined to make the move after this season ends.
In the five months he's been running the Illinois athletic department, I've come to really like Mike Thomas. I liked the professional manner in which he sized up the football program and its unusual season and I supported the way he acted decisively once the season ended. The program had ups and downs but seemed to have flat-lined in the ultra-competitive Big Ten. It was time for a change and Thomas made one.
Basketball isn't a knot that's as easy to untangle. It's more complicated. And that doesn't even take into account the finances of it, given the $2.6 million the athletic department already owes Ron Zook. Another buyout would add to the debt.
Just what is it the fans don't like about Bruce Weber?
It's a long list that has been building for years, and while some of it is nit-picking nonsense, some of it has merit.
Stop mentioning Weber's voice. It's a graveling voice and it occasionally squeaks. It has nothing to do with his ability to coach.
And, yes, while Weber yells a lot, so do many, many coaches including some of the best in the game. To me, that's also a non-issue.
More to the point, many fans howl about Weber's offense and I've been unhappy at times, too.
Generally speaking, I have no problem with the motion offense. It's a proven offense that, when run correctly, is difficult to guard. Many of the top minds in basketball praise Weber's concepts.
Too often, though, the Illini offense breaks down and it frustrates people in the process.
The absence of a point guard doesn't help. I think the Illini need a healthy Maniscalco but I'm not sure they're ever going to see that. His ankle may not allow it.
I think most would agree that too often the offense ends up trying to manufacture a desperation shot deep into the shot clock. No matter what offense you run, no one wants to settle for desperate shots.
Furthermore, when it's not moving well, this offense is no fun to watch. Would it hurt to let athletes like Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand and even Meyers Leonard push the pace a little? I realize that Big Ten defenses slow things down, but Illinois seems far too content to play that way.
Fans are also upset with the use - or lack of use - of the bench.
Weber set himself up for criticism here when, before the season, he said he planned to use a rotation of 9 or 10 players, maybe 11, making use of the depth that was supposed to be one of this team's best assets.
Instead, he has shortened his use of the bench, even though his post-game comments often agree that more playing time is needed for freshmen like Nnanna Egwu, Myke Henry and Mike Shaw.
Fans want less of Tyler Griffey and less of a wobbly Maniscalco, and more of Henry and Egwu.
In a more general sense, I believe fans think this team, despite its 15-5 record, is destined to become simply the latest version of a Weber team that's going nowhere fast. They see a team that might limp into the NCAA Tournament but will bow out quickly. Again. It's a trend they're tired of watching.
But there are bigger issues that Mike Thomas must wrestle with.
On Sunday, prior to the home loss to Wisconsin, Thomas told me he's preparing to embark on an important mission.
"I'm about to go out there and start raising money," he said, meaning the Assembly Hall renovation project is at lift-off stage.
Raising millions of dollars is always easier if those writing the checks have a good feeling about the program. Right now, there are too many potential donors who don't have that feeling.
Also, from December of 2004 to March of 2008, Illinois enjoyed 60 consecutive sellouts. Sunday's game against Wisconsin was this season's first. That's not a welcome trend.
I look at that 15-5 record and think, "Not bad. Meeting expectations."
But the eye test says something else. Fans know the schedule gets tougher, not easier. Armed with little faith, they fear the worst.