On a snowy day in Champaign-Urbana, the Assembly Hall was lively, as the second annual News-Gazette Shootout At The Hall displayed some of the talents that could soon be donning the orange and blue. With coach Bruce Weber and the entire Illini basketball team in attendance, the shootout got off to an explosive start with the second game of the day, in which the Centennial Chargers defeated the Rich South Stars 62-60. Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini and current Houston Rockets player Luther Head, scored 34 points to almost take the Stars to victory. Head, a 6'3 sophomore, was running and shooting all over the court, and displayed some excitement for the many Illini fans in attendance. In the next game, two Illini recruits went head-to-head, D. J. Richardson, a 6'2 junior guard against Joseph Bertrand, a 6'5 junior. Richardson plays for Peoria Central, while Bertrand plays for Sterling. Even though both players had their share of good plays, remember that they are still only juniors, and that their games could bet even better next year. Still, it is a thrill for these players to take the court where they will be playing their college basketball. Just like current Illini players Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole, who both played in the shootout last season, the experience gets them used to playing in this atmosphere, which is often different than their high school games normally are. Personally, I think that Richardson's game is a little better than Bertrand's at the moment, but Bertrand does show some potential to be even better, so the roles could be reversed next season. Nevertheless, under the watchful eye of Weber, these players hopefully instilled
the confidence that they are being worth followed.
In the next game, another Illini recruit, Brandon Paul, took the floor for Warren Township in Gurnee against New Trier. Paul, who is a 6'2 junior, has pretty good skills now, and with another year of seasoning, should be a nice addition to the Fighting Illini family. New Trier has a 6'4 sophomore, Alex Rossi, who the Illini are looking at. Assistant coaches Wayne McClain, Gary Nottingham and Jerrance Howard were all milling around during this game, watching the action. What impressed me in this game was not Paul or Rossi, but the outside shooting of guard Jack Boehm of New Trier. Don't get me wrong, Paul looked good, but this Boehm kid was lights out for the Trevians. Boehm, who plays along with his twin brother Peter, had 13 points at the half, and finished with 27 points. Brandon did get things going in the fourth quarter, and at the end of the first half, he banked in a shot that was estimated at about 55 feet at the buzzer.
I mentioned earlier that there were a lot of Illini fans in attendance, and orange was present all over the Assembly Hall. The next game featured even more orange, as the Peoria Manual Rams took on the Waukegan Bulldogs and yet another recruit for Weber, 6'6 sophomore Jereme Richmond. Richmond was the player that indicated interest in Illinois before his freshman year. Richmond is quite a player, and if he works on his game, he should be quite a player when he hits the collegiate ranks.
Not forgotten by any stretch of the imagination is the football team, who continues its preparation for the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California on New Year's Day. The Illini, who finished the regular season at 9-3 overall, are the only team to be in the BCS with 3 losses. This fact is not getting them much love from the national media, which is not surprising. And, to some extent, can you blame them? After all, this is a team that won just 4 games in the past 2 seasons, and here they reel off 5 straight to elevate themselves to the upper echelon of the Big Ten standings. I'm sure they would like to have the Iowa and Michigan games back, because this could be an even greater story if that were the case. Ron Zook, who grew up in Ohio, always dreamed of coaching in the Rose Bowl, but until this year, had never been given the opportunity to do so. Zook credits the dedication of the upperclassmen for persevering through some bleak times to get over the hump. But, emphatic as he is on the topic, insists that they still are not where they need to be. The number and quality of recruits that he is bringing in shows proof of that. The bar has been set higher, and the Illini will strive to get over that bar next season. They will finish up practice this week and then the team will spend Christmas with their families before re-convening after the holidays to fly out towards California on Christmas night. Regardless of the outcome, this is the feel good story of the year in Illini athletics and Illini Nation should enjoy the ride that this team is giving them.
While the basketball team was idle for 9 days for final exams, it gave them a chance to regroup and focus on the task at hand, which is winning ballgames. So far in the 2007-08 campaign, the Illini have only taken the Assembly Hall floor for 2 regular season games, but that is set to change in the next couple of weeks, as the Illini play 6 of their next 7 games at home. The barrage of home cooking begins on Monday night, when the Catamounts of Western Carolina come to visit (7:00 pm Central time, Big Ten Network), followed by a Thursday evening tilt against Miami of Ohio (6:00 pm, Central time, BTN). Then, the Illini are off to St. Louis to play in the annual Busch Braggin' Rights game against Missouri at the ScottTrade Center. With the flurry of activity upcoming, Coach Weber hopes that this will give his guys some continuity, despite playing only 1 game in the past 2 weeks. Senior Shaun Pruitt is coming off a career high in points with 24 in the loss to Arizona back on December 8, and for the Illini to become a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten Conference, they will need more of the same from Pruitt, as well as veterans Brian Randle and Chester Frazier. Randle is once again battling the injury bug, and Frazier needs to find his shot once again. The Illini enter play with the Catamounts at 5-3 overall.