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Bernstein: Illinois Basketball Must Decide What It Is

By Dan Bernstein- Senior Columnist

(CBS) Don't even bother looking outward for a new coach until you've looked inward.

If this pathetic, blubbering mess of failure and self-flagellation is to be somehow disinfected, it will take some real soul-searching before a reconstruction plan can be created.

Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas and the vocal, moneyed boosters need to make some difficult decisions before they embark on a search for the next man to helm their basketball team, and whoever it is will need a clear picture of his bosses' expectations, lest he end up the next casualty of a program caught in between.

The Illini have to be sure if they are a national power pursuing the best talent, restocking each year as some bail for the NBA, or a glorified mid-major that wins with the experience and guile of coached-up seniors and the occasional, lucky late-bloomer.

They also have to be sure what their relationship is with the city of Chicago. Are they in or out for all of the city's best players, every single year, or can they expand their base sufficiently to make that nasty world less important?

The critical first step is determining if they want to cheat. If they are indeed ready to play the big-boy recruiting game, then hire somebody who knows how to do it intelligently. There will be some odd line-items in the budget – "Travel Expenses" may go up, for instance – but things have to be done, and the best players come at a cost. This is the hold-the-nose, I-don't-want-to-hear-about-it route that many ADs choose, and it wins.

Just make sure the banners for the conference titles and Final Fours are stuck up there with Velcro, because they may come down later, after the money is made. This is the high-risk, high stakes table, and it takes brains, guts, financial commitment and discretion.

Hand-in-hand with that call is answering the Chicago question. If they can fly around the world to lure McDonald's All-Americans and foreign talent, it allows for less time locally among the oily street-agents, AAU pimps, and loose-lipped bag-men that make for some sleepless nights. Pipelines opened elsewhere – and I don't mean Peoria – can lessen the desperation level of the Illini's work in the city.

If you want to stay "clean," the hire has to be perfect. Bruce Weber himself was seen as this option, remember, a coach who would get the most out of whatever he had, even if he wasn't the most dynamic procurer of talent. The latter has proven true (not one of his recruits has played a minute in the NBA), but the former has not. The equation broke for him, but that is no reason to think the idea is any less viable now with the right guy.

What's troubling, though, is what already appeared to happen with the football program. Thomas talked a big game about the type of candidates he was targeting, and ended up getting used for leverage by anybody that anyone had heard of. The eventual hire of obvious fall-back Tim Beckman was a deflating head-scratcher, reinforcing the school's brand as something other than premium.

And it's all the more reason why this opportunity must be seized.

Illinois must know what it is, what it wants to be, what it can be, and how. If they try to be all things to all their fans, they end up being nothing to anyone, and right back where they are now – bemoaning their collective fate and losing ugly Big Ten games.

Time to stop crying. The most important things Illinois needs right now are clear eyes.

Jeff Pearl
Dan Bernstein

Dan Bernstein has been the co-host of "Boers and Bernstein" since 1999. He joined the station as a reporter/anchor in 1995. The Boers and Bernstein Show airs every weekday from 1PM to 6PM on The Score, 670AM. Read more of Bernstein's columns here. Follow him on Twitter @dan_bernstein.
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