CHAMPAIGN, ILL. There were times this season when Bruce Weber wasn't sure he had the makings of a championship team.
Criticism came easy for Illinois fans after the team was blown out by Providence, after a rare loss at home to Purdue, and especially after getting trounced at Northwestern and Wisconsin.
"You were skeptical, there's no doubt about it," Weber said. "I would think everyone was."
But in southern Illinois, Weber's old home, basketball fans were chuckling.
"They were laughing at the IQs of the Illinois fans," said Southern Illinois coach Matt Painter, who took over the team that Weber left last spring. "They'd seen him win with average talent, with good talent and with great talent at our level. They knew it was only a matter of time before (Illinois) started winning."
Illinois started winning after that 20-point loss at Wisconsin on Jan. 24 and hasn't lost since. The Illini won six road games during a 10-game winning streak that propelled them to their first outright conference championship since 1952.
Now, Illinois has the top seed in the Big Ten tournament this weekend, and a good performance there could persuade the NCAA Tournament selection committee to seed the team high.
"We knew something like this would happen," Painter said. "He knows what he's doing."
Weber's fingerprints remain on a Southern Illinois team that spent much of the season in the Top 25 and won its third straight Missouri Valley Conference championship. The Salukis put together a 16-game winning streak -- their longest since a 19-game streak in 1966-67 -- and likely will receive their third straight NCAA bid.
Painter, the MVC's coach of the year, credits Weber for giving the Salukis maturity.
"We don't have a lot of distractions off the court. We don't have distractions in practice. We don't have distractions in games because of the discipline he instilled in this program," Painter said. "He left a very good basketball program, not just a very good team."
Weber says he's glad to have "put a footprint in the history of SIU basketball."
"I think we added a lot of spark to it and people are feeling good about it, so you're proud of that," he said.
Weber's quick success didn't come without stress. He suspended four players in December for breaking team rules.
But he didn't give up on his players, and he didn't waver in his belief about how the Illini should play the game. He earned his team's respect.
"He could have easily told some guys to leave," senior Jerrance Howard said. "It means so much more what he says to us now because we know he always has our backs, no matter what happens."