Bradley, Illinois await stressful stretch

Bradley Braves coach Jim Les and Illinois Fighting Illini coach Bruce Weber have endured similar college basketball seasons.

Both have seen their teams on major highs. Bradley’s included beating Illinois. For the Illini, it wasn’t too long ago they were in first place in the Big Ten. Both have also seen their teams struggle mightily. The Braves went through a stretch where they lost seven of nine games, and Illinois has dropped four of its last five.

For both, the next two weeks will decide their teams’ fates. Bradley needs to win the Missouri Valley Tournament, which begins Thursday, to reach the NCAA Tournament or it can probably get to the NIT with a deep conference tourney run. For Weber, his team has to defeat Wisconsin on Sunday to improve its odds at the NCAAs or it could be facing the monumental task of running the table at the Big Ten Tournament.

As both admitted Wednesday, this time of year isn’t all about fun and excitement as conference tournament commercials will lead one to believe. It can actually be quite stressful for a Division I coach whose team’s postseason future is uncertain.

“It’s so amplified,” Les said. “People are talking about brackets in November. ‘One loss is going to end your season.’ You can’t think about it in those terms. I think what you got to do is insulate yourself.

“The pressures that come with people talking about the tournament in November and bracketology in December, all those things, you as a coach have to do the best job to stay insulated from that. It’s about not reading about it and not talking about it. If you can do that and continue to work to get better, the brackets and everything will take care of itself.”

Weber has worried himself sick at times this season over his team’s inconsistencies. Lately, he’s worked on trying to minimize the effect losses can have on him.

“It’s stressful,” said Weber as he drove into Chicago to recruit on Wednesday. “I’ve just learned to deal with it because of the roller coaster ride this team has taken us on. I was just killing myself mentally halfway through the year. I just got to the point where I had to find ways to relax and just let it come. I’m not saying I don’t do my best and work hard, but mentally you have to learn to control it and stay away from so many ups and downs as possible.

“It just took a toll. It takes a toll on you mentally. You can’t sleep. Physically, you started wearing down. I got sick. It adds up. You’re always going to get tired and physically strung, but when there are close games and comebacks and slow starts, all that definitely doesn’t make it easy.”

March Madness, indeed.

Scott Powers covers high school and college sports for ESPNChicago.com and can be reached at spowers@espnchicago.com.