Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Basketball season in full force

Let's face it, this is a pretty good basketball team that Bruce Weber has assembled this season. Gone are some of the distractions (Jamar Smith), and team unity is once again making it's presence known. Maybe it had something to do with Weber's decision to remove the names from the backs of the jerseys, claiming that you play for the name on the front, and not on the back. Whatever the reason, the Illini are 9-1 and just a shot away from a perfect 10-0 record. Call it "The Shot Not Taken" if you wish, but the Clemson game right now is the only thing standing in their way. And, the news is about to get even better for Weber and the Illini, as Alex Legion becomes eligible for Saturday's game against Detroit Mercy (7:00 pm, Big Ten Network). Legion, who has been idle since last December when he transferred in from Kentucky, will look to give the Illini another weapon shooting the basketball. But don't go expecting miracles immediately for Legion. He has had quite a journey since his high school days in Michigan. He attended prestigious Oak Hill Academy his senior season before enrolling at Kentucky, where he only played a handful of games before leaving the program. The departure of Jerrance Howard from Lexington had as much of an impact on Legion leaving as anyone did. Howard, who basically switched positions with Tracy Webster (although it wasn't like that at all), came to Illinois, and Legion soon wanted to follow. Weber had recruited him pretty aggressively, but didn't get him initially. Then, when he wanted to commit to Weber when he left the Wildcats, Weber essentially told him to come check it out before making a decision. So, to make a long story short, you will be seeing #33 entering the lineup (hopefully, if all of the grades and the like get posted) on Saturday night when the Illini seek their 10th win of the season.
Illini women's basketball coach Jolette Law has been enduring an up and down 2008 season so far, with 3 early wins that was followed up by a six game losing streak. The Illini get a taste of the best of the best on Saturday afternoon when they travel down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to face the second ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. Then, it is on to the Big Ten portion of the season when the Illini host Purdue on Monday night at the Assembly Hall. Law has maintained her belief that you get to be the best by playing the best, and she relishes this opportunity to go against one of the best teams in the entire country. With only 9 scholarship players this season, depth is obviously an issue, and that could be part of the problem with the early season losses. Still, you should not be losing to teams like Montana and South Dakota State, and that is something that Law hopes to change. Working with the players and changing some things with the game plan may be the driving force for the Illini as they enter Big Ten play.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Big 10/ACC Challenge - Must See Tv, or Mismatch?

I thought I would deviate from the normal format of this blog and concentrate on a central topic this week. With the football team ending their season prematurely, and basketball season just beginning for both the men and women, only the volleyball team is playing games that mean a whole lot right now. More on them later.
The Big 10/ACC Challenge turns 10 this week, and so far in this series, it has been a landslide in favor of the ACC. With teams like North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest perennially challenging for national titles, the Big Ten has been getting whitewashed in the previous 9 events. The Illini have not fared very well in the challenge either, winning only 3 of the 9 games. So, what seems to be the problem, you say? Personally, I just think the ACC breeds better basketball, hands down. They have the better coaches, guys like Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, among others, and have more exposure than the Big Ten. When you compare apples to apples, the ACC most always will win any argument between the two conferences. Now, the Big Ten has some good coaches, namely Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan, plus some that are up and coming, such as Bruce Weber, Thad Matta, and Tom Crean. But, the ACC continually gets the better talent, and they recruit more nationally than the Big Ten does. Sure, the Big Ten Network debuted a year ago to give fans in other areas a chance to see the conference, but the ACC has had their own network for many years, the sports giant known as ESPN. Guys like Dick Vitale and Dave Barnett spouting off at the mouth about the Tar Heels or the beloved Dukies gets old real fast. But, who can blame them? With as much exposure as they get, who wouldn't think they were far superior? This year vowed to be different, right? Well......., not so fast. With the train wreck happening at Indiana, and rebuilding projects at Iowa and Michigan, the Big Ten figured to be behind the eight ball once again. The Illini gave it their best shot on Tuesday night, coming within a final shot of defeating Clemson. Even though the Illini lost the game, some positives can be drawn from it. To be frank, this Illini team wasn't supposed to do much this season, so starting out at 6-0 left some to doubt if what they were seeing was real. The result was a 76-74 loss, as the Illini couldn't get the last shot off in regulation, and even though the crowd left disappointed at the first loss of the season, it is only the first loss and this team can build on that. With only 3 games and counting until the debut of Alex Legion, the Illini hope that another outside shooter can propel them into the Big Ten season.
Now, back to the challenge issue. The Illini are beginning to recruit more on a national level, and the addition of Mike Davis from Virginia (ACC territory, by the way) is a welcome start. At the Clemson game on Tuesday night, someone asked coach Oliver Purnell if he tried to recruit Davis while in high school. Purnell said he did, but since Davis was planning on going the prep school way, some coaches turned him off of their radar screens. It was Weber that convinced Davis to come to Illinois, where he could possible play right away. So far, so good on the result, as Davis has been a monster for the Illini, and an integral part of the team's 6-1 start.
Will the Big Ten ever win of these challenges? The jury remains out on that one, but for 2008, the Big Ten got closer. losing the 10th annual event by a 6-5 margin. Yes, the Big Ten could have taken their first challenge if the Illini could have gotten that final shot off (and made it). But, blowout losses by Michigan State to North Carolina and Indiana to Wake Forest make the answer to this question abundantly clear. The ACC is still superior to the Big Ten, and things will not change unless the brand of basketball that is played on the prairie matches that of the style that takes place on Tobacco Road.
Don Hardin announced his retirement this week as coach of the Illinois women's volleyball team, a position that he had held at Illinois for the past 13 seasons. Hardin has brought a level of talent to the program that has seen 9 trips to the NCAA Tournament, including the Final Four in 1987. Hardin wanted to imply that he is not leaving because he has to, he just wants to focus on teaching as the next phase of his career path. Having been given the opportunity to know Coach Hardin over the past few years, he is a superb individual that will be greatly missed within the Illinois program. The 2008 squad received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, and will actually host first and second round matches on Friday and Saturday evening. The Illini, who finished the regular season at 24-7, received a #9 seed and will take on Wisconsin-Milwaukee, while Cincinnati and Western Kentucky will square off in the other match, with the winners facing each other on Saturday for the right to move on to the Sweet Sixteen. Let's hope that Coach Hardin can take this team deep into the tourney and extend what has been a brilliant coaching career.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

A wild week of sports - Illini Style!

The crossover season in sports is heaven to the sports fan of any age. At the University of Illinois, that time has come, and if you are any kind of a sports fan that follows the Illini, then last weekend was your Mecca. Starting off with earlier in the week, fall signing day for both basketball teams and the volleyball teams arrived, and Bruce Weber and Jolette Law both made quite a splash with announcing their 2009 classes. On the men's side, four players were signed, and the talent level of these guys may be just what the Illini need to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, D. J. Richardson, and Tyler Griffey are coming into a program at just the right time. Beset by defections and graduation, Weber and the Illini need some positive reinforcement to take place within the program. Paul, a 6'3 guard from Warren High School in Gurnee, can move up and down the court much like Richardson, also a 6'3 guard from the basketball factory of Peoria, Illinois. However, Richardson is away at prep school in Henderson, Nevada this season to concentrate on academics before enrolling at Illinois. Bertrand, a 6'5 guard from Sterling, is the reigning Class 3A slam dunk champion in the state, and may be versatile at either the 2 or the 3 position. Griffey, the lone out-of-stater from Wildwood, Missouri, is a 6'9 forward that has had the Illini on his radar for several years. His high school coach also coached former Illini Robert Archibald, giving instant credibility to the program. On the court, the Illini opened up the season with a pair of wins, defeating Eastern Washington 66-50 and Texas A & M - Corpus Christi 72-53, both at the Assembly Hall. In the win over TAMCC, sophomore Mike Davis showed some potential, recording a double double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the win. Things get a bit tougher for Weber and his young team when they travel to Nashville, Tennessee for their first road game on Thursday night against Vanderbilt (7:00 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest). The Commodores are coached by Kevin Stallings, who is a close and personal friend of Weber's from their days at Purdue.
Illinois women's basketball coach Jolette Law was also busy on signing day, inking six players to letters of intent. Those players are as follows: Adrienne GodBold (Marshall HS, Chicago, Ill.), Brianna Jones (Central Catholic HS, Toledo, Ohio), Kersten Magrum (Lincoln-Way East HS, Frankfort, Ill.), Amber Moore (Country Day HS, Detroit, Mich.), Karisma Penn (Shaker Heights HS, Shaker Heights, Ohio) and Destiny Williams (Benton Harbor HS, Benton Harbor, Mich). This class has been ranked #2 nationally, meaning that Law is trying to make good on her promise to put Illinois women's basketball on the national map and bring a championship to Champaign. The Illini women have also begun their season, and so far, things are looking pretty good. A win last Friday against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 64-44, and a home win against Eastern Illinois 49-45 last Sunday ahead of the men's game, is just the way Law wanted to start things out. With only 9 scholarship players, minutes are up for grabs and a total team effort needs to occur each night out for continued success. The Illini will battle Missouri at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday night (8:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) to try and keep up the favorable start to the new season.
It has come down to this for Ron Zook and his Illini football team. Win and become bowl eligible, or lose and watch other teams battle in bowls for the upcoming holiday season. The Illini couldn't get it done last Saturday, falling to Ohio State 30-20 for Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. This has not been the season that these seniors envisioned at the start of the season. Fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini wanted to improve on their 8-4 record and possibly play another meaningful bowl game. Instead, the Illini find themselves literally against the wall, needing a win against Northwestern (2:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) on Saturday to get that all-important sixth win that will make them bowl eligible. Now, getting a win on Saturday doesn't mean that the Illini will get a bowl bid. Based on attendance figures, the Illini would be a better choice than some 7-5 teams, such as, ironically, Northwestern. But, how do you choose a 6-6 team (assuming Illinois wins) over a 7-5 team? Not an easy task at all. Northwestern will be up for this game, as they always are when facing their in-state rival. The main knock on Zook as of late has been his coaching ability in key situations. The removal of Juice Williams against the Buckeyes was more or less just a wake-up call, and you will see #7 behind center when the Illini take the field against the Wildcats on Saturday. When Zook was at Florida, he was known as a great recruiter, but not a good game coach. Similar patterns are beginning to develop during his tenure at Illinois as well. Zook continues to bring in top level players, but with as much talent that is on this team now, you would think that consecutive winning seasons would be in order. This has caused concern that some of the recruits that have given soft verbals may be wanting to reconsider and re-open their options. Failure to secure these prospective recruits could signal an alarming message to the program. Then again, these players could see this as a positive in knowing that the team needs help and they could step right in and play immediately. Losing Brit Miller, Ryan McDonald, Xavier Fulton and David Lindquist will no doubt hurt, and rumors are abound that junior cornerback Vontae Davis is going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. However this plays out, the Illini need this win on Saturday to restore some credibility to the program because it has been awhile, a long while, since Illinois made consecutive bowl appearances.
Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team has been moving through the NCAA Tournament this past week, and have advanced to the round of 16, putting them in some pretty select company. The Illini will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Saturday to face the North Carolina Tar Heels, who have been the face of success in collegiate soccer over the past two decades. Rayfield is no stranger to the Tar Heels, having played there and helped them to their first national title back in 1982. This is the third appearance in the Sweet 16 for the Illini in the last five years, all in the Rayfield tenure. Tall order may it be, the fact remains that the Illini are poised to keep their season going, no matter what it takes.
Finally, volleyball was also in action this past week, and like the basketball teams, they signed some more talent as well for 2009. 6-1 outside hitter Jessica Jendryk (Wheaton, Ill./Benet Academy) , 6-3 middle blocker Erin Johnson (Crystal Lake, Ill./Crystal Lake South) , and 5-9 setter Jackie Wolfe (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton-Warrenville South H.S.) will join Don Hardin's squad next year, and will add to some pretty stellar talent already in place. On the court, the Illini dropped a match to top-ranked Penn State last Friday night, and came back with wins over Indiana at Huff Hall, and Purdue on the road. In the match against the Nittany Lions, Penn State won in three games, and what is more impressive is that they have not lost a single game this season. The Illini will wrap up their regular season this weekend when they host Michigan State for senior night.
Is that enough sports for ya? This is only one week's worth, which means they'll be more this week, and the next, and.......

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Don't look now, but..........

What in the name of Red Grange is going on? After a successful run to the Rose Bowl in 2007, the Fighting Illini football team finds themselves on the outside looking in at the bowl picture just one year later. The latest setback, a 23-17 loss to Western Michigan at spacious Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. If ever there was a trap game, this one was it. Playing out of conference so late in the season, and for that matter, out of their element as well, the Illini made the trip up to Detroit to take on the Broncos, who came into the game at 7-2. After the Illini had beaten Iowa the week before on a field goal by Matt Eller with just 24 seconds remaining, momentum was on their side. Or, was it? Picture this if you will. Ford Field seats 65, 000 fans, but the announced attendance was just under 13,ooo. Now, I'm no mathematician, but that doesn't compute to me. To add insult to injury, no local markets picked up the game on television, so fans had to resort to either listening to Brian Barnhart and Kurt Kittner call the action on the Illini Sports Network (not a bad option, by the way), or get to a local watering hole that actually ponied up the money to get the telecast (there weren't many). The only other option was to find a computer that somehow got ESPN360, where the game was streamed online. Not that the fans missed much by not seeing this one. Before a crowd that wouldn't fill the Assembly Hall, the Illini were outplayed for much of the game. Sure, the Illini took an early lead as they often do, but then they watched the Broncos reel off 17 unanswered points to trail 20-7 at the half. Juice Williams was able to throw for over 300 yards once again, and his favorite target, Arrelious Benn, once again eclipsed the century mark in receiving yards. But this team needs to be about more than just Juice and Regus, as they are affectionately known to fans and media alike. They simply are not getting the job done, and losing to a MAC team at a neutral site is about the tip of the iceberg in terms of frustration. Ron Zook always manages to try to explain what went wrong, and vows that they will get whatever it is wrong fixed, but as the season nears its end, the Illini and the coaching staff are still looking for answers. Is it really asking too much for the Illini to put together back-to-back solid games, that end up in the win column? I guess this kind of all started with the opening game back in late August in St. Louis, as the defense allowed Missouri to run and pass them ragged, en route to a 52-42 loss. The Illini did win two in a row early on in the season, but they barely beat Louisiana-Lafayette, and didn't play that well in the game. Winning at Michigan was a start, but Michigan is way down this year and Indiana, who the Illini also beat, is even worse than that. Left on the schedule this season are two games that could go either way. Ohio State comes to Memorial Stadium this Saturday (11:00 am CST, ESPN), and then the Illini travel to Evanston to face in-state rival Northwestern the following Saturday. Currently sitting at 5-5 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten, the Illini know what they need to do to secure a bowl berth. They need to win out, because a split would put them at 6-6, which would be bowl eligible, but not necessarily a given. Ohio State is beatable, but they are still playing for plenty themselves and have fared rather well in Champaign the last few visite, winning the last 6. Northwestern is streaky, and can either light it up on oppenents, or hiccup and let one get away. The Buckeyes have one of the best young quarterbacks in the country in Terrelle Pryor, and this ought to be fun watching Juice and Terrelle go at it. Also, a split in these last two games could very well send the Illini right back to Detroit for bowl season, as the Big Ten has a tie-in to the Motor City Bowl, slated for the day after Christmas at Ford Field. The MAC also ties into that bowl, so you could very well see the Illini matching up against either Ball State, Central Michigan, or Western Michigan again. But, I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. Coaches don't look ahead past opponents, and neither should I. The Buckeyes are the focus this week, and the Illini need to worry about beating them first before any talk of the Wildcats hit the floor.
It's not that Zook isn't getting talent to come to Illinois. With the likes of Juice, Regus, Vontae Davis, Martez Wilson, and others, he has proven that he is a dynamic recruiter. Zook was fired at Florida 5 years ago because he wasn't meeting expectations for whatever reason. Some here in Champaign have begun to see that maybe his in-game coaching could have been the reason for his seperation from Gainesville, because his successor down there, Urban Meyer, seems to be doing fairly well. We are seeing the last of the Ron Turner recruits exit out of the program, and Zook has some more recruits ready to come in next season as well. Guys like WR Kraig Appleton of East St. Louis, DE Craig Drummond of Chicago, and QB Nathan Scheelhaase of Kansas City, Missouri headline another nationally ranked class for Zook. Add Florida transfer Jarrod Fayson to the mix, and things should continue to look up for the Illini. There should be ample cause for these freshmen to step right in and play, because Zook has shown that he is not afraid to play freshmen. Now, they need to get over the hump and secure that second straight bowl appearance, something that has not happened in Champaign-Urbana for quite a while. Is that too much to ask?
When previewing the Illini women's basketball team for 2008-09, a lot of space isn't necessary. It's not because of the coverage that the program has received over the past few years, but due primarily to the fact that there are only 9 scholarship players on the team. Coach Jolette Law, who is already making positive strides to reverse the program's direction previous bench boss Theresa Grentz sent it, came within one second of defeating Purdue in last year's Big Ten Tournament title game, which would have sent the Illini to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in quite a while. The two seniors on the team, Chelsea Gordon and Lacey Simpson, will be asked to assume leadership of a team that will have 6 newcomers out of the 9 players. Jenna Smith, the only other player that has experience at the Big Ten level, is a junior and is shaping her game to have a monster season. Law brought in Whitney Toone, a junior college transfer out of Brooklyn, New York to play forward, and add redshirt freshman Lydia McCully as a sharpshooting guard. Four other freshmen dot the roster, and will be asked to help out almost immediately. Macie Blinn, from Greenville, Ohio will play guard, as will Fabiola Josil (Coral Springs, Florida) and Eboni Mitchell (Decatur, Georgia). Joining them will be 6'3 forward Lana Rukavina, from Wheeling, Illinois. Out of the nine players, seven hail from out of the state of Illinois. Coach Law has vowed to recruit the state from top to bottom to find the best players to bring to Illinois, but is also not afraid to bring in players outside the state's borders. On Wednesday, both the mens and women's teams will finally be able to sign their recruits for the 2009 seasonat National Letter of Intent signing day. Law will be bringing in 5 new players that day, and men's coach Bruce Weber will be getting 4. I'll have complete coverage of the new players and how they expect to fit into the respective mixes later in the week. Stay tuned for that.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Are We There Yet? Not Quite.

The strain of a season full of expectations are finally starting to wear on Ron Zook, who is finding out that he might be more correct than he led on at the start of the season. The Fighting Illini are just 1 year removed from their Rose Bowl appearance, and after that game he mentioned that the team wasn't where they wanted to be yet. It's hard to tell the average Illini fan that, however. As I have said numerous times within the borders of this blog, Illini fans are a fickle group and the slightest teeter between the negative and the positive will usually cause wild fan comments. When things are going good, such as last year, then everyone is on top of the world and the talk of erecting a statue of Zook was a frequent topic. But, when things aren't going so well, then things get a little different. After a 55-13 dismantling of Indiana back on October 18, the Illini had regained some of that swagger that had eluded them much of this season. The Illini were poised to travel to Wisconsin and face a Badger team that had not won a game in the Big Ten this season. If ever there was a trap game, this was it. The Illini fell behind early, but found the endzone at the start of the second quarter as Juice Williams hit Zach Becker, a freshman backup fullback from St. Joseph-Ogden for his first collegiate touchdown. Watching Zach come through the ranks for the Spartans gave me a lot of pride to see him finally catch his first pass of his career, much less it be for a score. However, the Illini couldn't stay out of their own way as penalties and turnovers once again proved to be the deciding factor as the Illini dropped to 2-3 in the Big Ten and 4-4 overall. If ever there was a must win for Zook and his Illinois team, it is this Saturday, when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town for a visit (2:30 pm central time, ABC). A footnote regarding television for the game; those fans out of the Big Ten market will be able to see the game on ESPN. Iowa is one of those teams that is hard to figure out. They come in at 5-3 overall and 2-2 in league lay, and feature one of the better running backs in the conference in Shonn Greene. The Hawkeyes were on a bye last week, and haven't played since they beat Wisconsin 38-16 back on October 18. For the Illini to retain any hopes of getting a bowl bid, this game must go in the win column. That pretty much sums it up.
The curtain will rise on the 2008-09 Fighting Illini men's basketball team this coming Sunday afternoon when they host Florida Southern in an exhibition game at the Assembly Hall. The Illini will be young, and starting the season a little short-handed at guard play. The three seniors, Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier, and Calvin Brock will provide the leadership that will be sorely needed. The Illini had planned on having Jamar Smith back for another season, but you all know the story and how that particular chapter ended, so I won't go into any more detail on it. There are only two juniors on the team this year, juco transfer Dominique Keller and the ever re-appearing C. J. Jackson, who is done with football and wants to come back and give basketball another try. Keller, who hails from Texas, should give the Illini some depth down in the post. Jackson is a bruiser that may or may not factor in to the mix, given his fluctuating back and forth between sports. The conditioning will be undoubetedly the most difficult for Jackson, and we shall see how he handles all of it early on in the season. For sophomores, the Illini are absolutely loaded, as seven players dot the roster from that class. Mike Tisdale leads this group of upcoming stars, and will be expected to contribute to the void left by Shaun Pruitt, who graduated last year. Guard Demetri McCamey will need to keep his shooting skills in tact, because he will be one of the top guns early on. Mike Davis and Richard Semrau will also be expected to add some depth to the front line. Semrau, who has battled injuries and illness during his time as an Illini, seems to have put on some weight and is ready for the season to begin. Davis can be a wild card, and has good leaping ability for a 6'9 player. Bill Cole, who played sparingly as freshman, will also be asked to spell some of the post players. Jeff Jordan, who had some good moments last season, can also be that type of player who can come in and give McCamey and Meacham some needed rest. The final sophomore, Alex Legion, is the transfer from Kentucky, and must sit out the first part of the season as part of NCAA rules. He will become eligible in December after fall finals end. Legion could be that key that sparks the Illini once the Big Ten season begins. In summer workouts before the Smith debacle, Legion and Smith were the two best shooters on the team. The hard part here will be to keep Alex focused when it finally is his turn. The lone freshman on the team is Stan Simpson, a gangly 6'9 center, who may or may not be a factor this season. Nobody intends to redshirt at the start of a season, and according to Coach Bruce Weber, it is always ultimately up to the player to make that final decision. Whether or not Simpson decides to make that choice is anybody's guess right now, but if he doesn't and chooses to play, look for him to give Tisdale some much needed rest.
Now, looking at this roster, you really don't see an NCAA Tournament team, do you? This team could very well surprise some people, but it will be in the non-conference portion of the season where we will really see what this team is all about. A tough road contest at Vanderbilt, a United Center matchup with Georgia, and the Big 10/ACC Challenge game at home against Clemson will be three games that will tell a lot of this story. However the season plays out, one thing is clear. The 2009 recruits are on the way, and if they are as advertised, things could get fun again at the Assembly Hall. Illini fans just have to exhibit a little patience. No, really, I mean it.
Next week, I will preview the women's basketball outlook for the 2008-09 season, as well as get everyone caught up to speed on the fall sports scene on campus, and whether or not the Illini were able to get past Iowa and if their bowl hopes are still floating, or are flushed down the drain.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Unfinished business, or a work in progress?

Well, now that wasn't the way things were supposed to go. A beautiful October afternoon, many former alumni on hand to watch their beloved do battle, and a basketball court at one end of the stadium that was to stage the "biggest outdoor basketball practice" (more on that later). Then again, things happen for a reason, but the question I want to know is: Will the real Illinois football program please step forward? After an annihilation of Michigan one week earlier 45-20, the Illini finally returned home to their new renovated stadium with renewed hopes for a successful season and a possible warm destination for a bowl game. This one looked good on paper, but as the old saying goes, you don't play games on paper, and for good reason. The Illini, despite another good performance (at least numbers wise) from Juice Williams, who completed 26 of 41 passes for 462 yards and 2 touchdown passes, both going to true freshman A. J. Jenkins (right, #8) went down to defeat at the hands of Minnesota 27-20. Gopher coach Tim Brewster, who was making a homecoming of his own, came away the victor, and left scores of Illini fans exiting Memorial Stadium shaking their heads and wondering what they just witnessed. Brewster, who played tight end for the 1984 Illini Rose Bowl team, had to enjoy the feeling of knocking off his alma mater, and it was no secret that they were looking forward to coming in to Champaign with one thing on their minds. This continues a disturbing pattern for Illinois football teams of playing mediocre the year after a major bowl appearance. It happened in 1984 after the Illini went to the Rose Bowl (10-2 in 1983, 7-4 in 1984, but a free-fall after that). It also happened in 2002 after the Illini made their first ever BCS bowl appearance, the Nokia Sugar Bowl in New Orleans (10-2 in 2001, 5-7 in 2002, and everyone knows what happened after that). So, here we sit the season after another Rose Bowl trip, where the Illini went 9-4. Could they be heading in that direction again? The Illini currently sit at 3-3 overall, and even though there are 6 games left in the season, the prospects of running the table seem very unlikely at this point, especially with the likes of Ohio State, Wisconsin and Northwestern on the schedule.
Too much emphasis is put on trying to match a previous campaign, and it is not like Zook doesn't have the horses in place to make it happen. For the second straight week, Williams set a stadium record in offensive output, having totaled 503 yards against the Gophers after piling up 431 in the "Big House" against Michigan just one week earlier. Now the win over Michigan doesn't look as impressive after the Wolverines were blanked at home by Toledo 13-0. I heard several people mutter as they left the stadium on Saturday that they are looking forward to basketball season, which is eerily reminiscent of 2005, when similar remarks were overheard. Bottom line is, Illini fans are frustrated, and you figure that you ought to hold serve at home against teams that you should beat. Another one of those teams visit this coming Saturday night when Indiana pays a visit to Memorial Stadium (7:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). The Hoosiers were thoroughly embarrassed against Iowa in Bloomington last Saturday 45-9, and will come into town reeling. But, for some reason, the Hoosiers always give the Illini their best game and this one will be no different. The Hoosiers have a quarterback that moves much like Juice does in Kellen Lewis. Hoosier coach Bill Lynch has stated that Lewis is questionable for the game, but everyone suspects that he will play. For the Illini to come out on top in this one, they need to cut down the mistakes, hold onto the ball, and convert their chances for points.
At least we're not Michigan.
Following the football game, the basketball program (see below) held what was deemed the "World's Biggest Basketball Practice", but given the disappointing end to the football game, not many people hung around to see the event. For starters, the court was at the south end of the football field, and not very well visible by people on the north end of the stadium. The court, made by Flex Court in Kewanee, was to be auctioned off after the scrimmage, and the starting bid was to be $12,500. It is rather uncertain if the Illini would have pulled out the win over the Gophers to see if more people would have stayed to watch the basketball team. By my guestimation, about 5-6,000 people remained in the stands, while many others decided to return to their pre-game tailgates for Homecoming. Still, a nice idea by the DIA in trying to get more people to stay.
The calendar may say October, but basketball season is just around the corner. Bruce Weber and Jolette Law unveiled their basketball teams to the media on Tuesday at Illini Basketball Media Day. Weber returns a young team that has 3 seniors, 2 juniors, 7 sophomores and 1 freshman. This will be a team that will attempt to come back after a 16-19 season that saw them just miss the NCAA Tournament by coming up short in the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament. On the flip side, Jolette Law will only have 9 players, with 2 seniors, 2 juniors, 1 sophomore, and 4 freshmen. Law's Illini also came up just short last season, getting even closer to the Big Ten Tournament title by losing to Purdue on a buzzer-beater. In the next couple of weeks, I will preview each of the teams, complete with analysis of position, leading up to the season openers for both squads in early November. Stay tuned for that.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Back home again............

After nearly a month on the road, including a bye week with no game at all, Ron Zook brings his charges home to Memorial Stadium to face Minnesota for Homecoming in Champaign-Urbana. The place where this tradition began many years ago, the Illini will be glad to get back in front of the faithful. Not that the last few weeks have been totally bad for the Illini, they split their two games and had a chance to relax and heal some injuries with the bye week. The back end of the two game road swing, a trip to Ann Arbor, where the Illini never seem to play very well. The result was much better than anticipated, as Illinois rolled the Wolverines 45-20 in what could be labeled the Juice Williams show. All Juice did was total 431 yards of total offense, throwing for 310 yards, and rushing for another 121. The performance set a Michigan Stadium record for an individual performance, one that is not likely to be broken for quite some time. Williams threw 2 touchdowns, one to Daniel Dufrene, and the other one to Jeff Cumberland, which totaled 77 yards. Arrelious Benn caught 6 balls for 122 yards, but did not reach the endzone. It is dominance such as this that gives one the thought that maybe this Illini team is not that far from contending for a Big Ten title. Sure, the loss to Penn State didn't help in that regard, and they still have games against Wisconsin and Ohio State left on the schedule, so this could be a tall order for the 2008 season. Nevertheless, the Illini are now 3-2 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play coming into the game against Minnesota (11:00 am, ESPN). This game has irony written all over it, since the Golden Gophers are coached by Tim Brewster, who was a tight end for the Illini back in the 1980's. I'm sure that Brewster would like nothing more than to beat his alma mater, who took his Gophers to the woodshed last year, 44-17 at the Metrodome in Minneapolis. So, I'm sure that is weighing on his mind as well.
The next phase of the "Zook Zone" campaign will be unveiled on Saturday, when the Illini want the fans to "Rock The House". Fans are encouraged to bring their Zook Zone towels with them to the game and wave them when Minnesota has the ball. The fans are also encouraged to stand whenever the opponent has the ball, making Memorial Stadium a decided Illini Territory. Hey, if Penn State can have a "white-out" at Beaver Stadium, why can't Illinois do the same with the color orange? It would make for quite a spectacle, and I'm sure the players would thoroughly enjoy the atmosphere. So, whadda you say Illini fans, those of you going to the game on Saturday......MAKE SOME ILLI-NOISE!!
Immediately following the football game, Memorial Stadium will be transformed into the "World's Biggest Basketball Practice", showcasing both the mens and women's teams for the 2008-09 season. Flex Court Athletics, a company out of Kewanee, Illinois, is donating the playing surface for the event, which will take place in the horseshoe area of the stadium. Once the game clock hits zero, the players will come out and start warming up. Among the events to take place include a three-point shooting contest, slam dunk contest, and a short scrimmage. The DIA estimates that the event will last no longer than 45 minutes. So, if you're attending the game on Saturday, why not stick around a while longer and take in the first basketball practice in an outdoor venue.
Up next week, a full report from Illinois basketball media day, as well as a preview of the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz NBA exhibition game, which will be at the Assembly Hall next Friday night.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Over the past several seasons, the Illinois football program has enjoyed a resurgence, thanks in part to Ron Zook coming to take over a squad that was run into the ground by the former regime. This marginal success has spread to the NFL, where a quite a few ex-Illini have gone on to varying degrees of success. However, this past weekend was not a good one to be a former Illini player in the league, as the injury bug hit rather hard. First, Brandon Lloyd, now a receiver with the Bears, was injured during their game on Sunday night with Philadelphia and had to leave the game. Okay, so that's one, you say. Well, fast forward to Monday night, and the Steelers-Ravens game, in which Rashard Mendenhall was making the first start of his career for the injured Willie Parker. The spotlight, however, was short-lived, as Mendenhall fractured his shoulder and is done for the season. Enter in Mendenhall's backup, also a former Illini, Carey Davis. There must have been something in the water in Pittsburgh, because Davis also left the game with an injury. The thought brought to mind a Seinfeld episode, where son, father and grandfather are all laid up in bed after throwing their backs out. Picture Parker, Mendenhall and Davis in the same situation and, well, you get the idea. As far as I know, no other former Illini players went down over the weekend, but three is plenty for one weekend, don't you think?
Now to the playing field, as the Illini came off of their bye week with a trip to Happy Valley to battle Penn State, arguably the best team that the Illini has faced all season long. Amid "white out" conditions, the Illini broke out of the gate first against their hosts and looked rather well doing it. Both teams traded scores, and at the end of the first quarter, a 14-14 tie ensued, and it looked like it would be a high scoring game. But Penn State was ranked #12 for a reason, and they eventually wore the Illini down with their running game. Daniel Dufrene led the Illini on the ground with 96 yards on 14 carries, while Juice Williams ran the ball 18 times for 64 yards. Williams completed 13 of 24 passes for 183 yards and 2 touchdowns, and was picked off once. The back-breaker for the Illini occurred in the fourth quarter, as Derrick Williams ran back a kickoff 94 yards for a touchdown right after Illini placekicker Matt Eller had drilled a 43 yards field goal to cut the Nittany Lion lead to 24-17. The loss drops the Illini to 2-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, while Penn State remains undefeated at 5-0 overall and 1-0 in league play.
The road does not get any easier for the Illini, as they are back away from Memorial Stadiun again this weekend when they travel to Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines (2:30 pm central time, ABC Regional). Michigan escaped with a 27-25 upset win over Wisconsin last Saturday in Ann Arbor and come into the contest at 2-2 overall and 1-0 in conference play.
Don Hardin's Illini volleyball team split their first weekend of Big Ten action, defeating Indiana in 4 sets, then losing to top-ranked and defending national champion Penn State in straight sets. Johannah Bangert and Kylie McCulley came up big in the win over the Hoosiers, while the lone bright spot for the Illini in the loss to the Nittany Lions was once again McCulley, who had 9 kills and a hitting percentage of .381. Up next for the Illini, a couple of home matches this weekend, first hosting Minnesota on Friday night, then welcoming Iowa in on Saturday evening. The Illini are currently 10-3 overall and 1-1 in Big Ten play.
Janet Rayfield's soccer team also split their games last weekend, defeating Wisconsin 2-1 on Friday as Jessica Levitt and Marti Desjarlais scored the Illini goals. Then, on Sunday, the Illini lost a hard fought 1-0 contest to Northwestern. Up next for the women, a return home for a couple of matches this weekend against Michigan State on Friday evening and Michigan on Sunday afternoon. The #17 ranked Illini are 7-4 overall on the season, and 1-1 in conference play.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

A Legendary Night in Champaign

Last Saturday had a little bit of everything. First, a near scare on the football field as Ron Zook's Fighting Illini survived Louisiana-Lafayette in a game that should not have been nearly this tight by a final score of 20-17. The Ragin' Cajuns, who play in the Football Championship Subdivision, fell behind early, but managed to stick around and give the Illini everything they could handle. Daniel Dufrene led the Illini on the ground with 19 carries for 126 yards, while Juice Williams completed 13 of 25 passes for 147 yards. Yes, not great totals, but enough to sustain and get the victory. But, a win is a win, nonetheless, and gave the Illini a 2-1 record heading into their bye week. Coach Zook said last week that this bye week was much needed, since the team had a long and prosperous training camp and went headlong into the season pretty much right after that. They say that defenses win championships, and the Illini's sure was on target, especially Brit Miller, who stripped the ball from Cajun quarterback Michael Desormeaux and ran it back 27 yards for a touchdown. Never at a loss for words, Miller lets his actions speak on the field, and this score surely spoke volumes. Having a bye week this early in the season lets the team recharge their batteries and get ready for the Big Ten season, which begins this coming Saturday night at State College, Pennsylvania against the Penn State Nittany Lions (7:00 pm CT, ABC). For the Illini to be successful in Happy Valley, they will have to limit their mistakes and learn to take better care of the football, something that eluded them against Lafayette. Then, it is on to Michigan to face a much different Wolverine squad under the leadership of Rich Rodriguez. We will certainly know more about what this year's edition of the Illini will be after these two games. Stay tuned.
On Saturday night, the stars were out in full force at the Assembly Hall in what amounted to one of the most anticipated nights on the U of I campus in recent memory. Those of you in attendance will agree with me that the Hall was sweltering in the mid-September heat, but that didn't seem to dampen spirits of those that braved the elements. For the first time since their Final Four run back in 2005, Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Luther Head and Roger Powell all took the Assembly Hall floor together and dazzled the crowd. Williams, who is a superstar for the Utah Jazz, had his gold medal in hand and was recognized with USA Basketball director Jerry Colangelo, himself an alum that was being recognized, for their outstanding achievement in bringing the highest honor home. The game did not dissapoint either, as the Blue team that featured this quartet defeated the White team, which was a bit older 84-7o. Williams led the Blue squad with 19 points, while Powell and Head scored 13 and 11 points, respectively. Former Flyin' Illini standout Kendall Gill led the White team with 14 points, while fellow teammate Nick Anderson netted 13. Perhaps the highlight of the evening was the unveiling of the 30 jerseys that will be displayed in the Assembly Hall next season. Simultaneously, the representatives all untied their respective banner, and the sight was one to not be forgotten for quite some time. With all of the talk about what will become of the Assembly Hall if and when the decision is made to either renovate the existing building, or build a new facility, one thing is clear; if renovation is chosen, AIR CONDITIONING will be at the top of the wish list!
The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continued their non-conference season with a win over Southern Illinois-Edwardsville (25-18, 25-13, 25-13) to push their record to 9-2 before the conference season begins next weekend when they play at Indiana on Friday night, then travel to State College to battle Penn State on Saturday.
Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team continues to play well, as they won a pair of matches last weekend, first defeating Colorado College 2-0, then coming back on Sunday to defeat Washington 3-0. In the win over the Huskies, Emily Zurrer put in the eventual game winner, and also received goals from Jessica Levitt and Chichi Nweke. The victories move the Illini to 6-3 overall and they also begin conference play on the road next weekend, first playing at Madison against Wisconsin on Friday evening, then traveling back into the state to battle Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Legends return to campus

A picture-perfect day. A newly renovated stadium. Dozens of former players returning to take part in the Renaissance Celebration. And, oh yes, there was football. This was all part of the re-birth of Memorial Stadium, and fans in attendance did not go away disappointed. The Illini defeated Eastern Illinois 47-21 to notch their first victory of the season, even though they may not have played their best football. A win, nevertheless, is a win, as Juice Williams continued his dominance as a dual threat on offense. Williams ran 16 times for 174 yards and scored two touchdowns, and completed 16 of 25 passes for 124 yards and another score. Even though Juice is making some mistakes (he threw 2 more interceptions), he is still doing what is needing to be done in order for the Illini to have success. The near sellout on Saturday is a testament to the shift that the program has gone through in the last few years since the arrival of Coach Zook. The stadium looks unbelievable, and it almost seems as if you are in a different stadium altogether with the changes that have been made. The old press box seemed like a trailer compared to the new edifice that adorns the west stands now. It certainly looks different from Florida Avenue as well, and in the future, the horseshoe will be re-done, as will some things on the east side. With the Illini now even up on the season at 1-1, they look toward their next game, which is against the Ragin' Cajuns of Louisiana-Lafayette (11:00 am Saturday, Big Ten Network). This is the first ever meeting between the Illini and the Cajuns, who may be more commonly known as Southwestern Louisiana, which they were called for many years. There was speculation that the Cajuns would be coming to Illinois early to beat Hurricane Ike, but they have since revamped those plans and will make the trip as scheduled. The Cajuns are coached by Ricky Bustle, who coached with Zook at Virginia Tech. Lafayette features another good quarterback in Michael Desormeaux, who threw for just over 1400 yards last season. The Cajuns also feature another good tailback in Tyrell Fenroy, who hit the 1000 yard mark in rushing last season. Desormeaux also eclipsed that mark last season, making him a dual threat, much like Williams, his counterpart on the other side. Lafayette was defeated by Southern Mississippi in their opening game on August 30 51-21, and was on a bye last week, bringing them into the contest at 0-1. According to Coach Zook, this should be a pretty good game, but ultimately one that the Illini should come out on top in. We shall soon find out.
Speaking of legends, there will be an abundance of them at the Assembly Hall on Saturday evening, as the basketball program welcomes back several former players for the "Night of Legends" event. Among the returnees will be 4 of the 2005 Final Four team, led by U.S. Olympian and current Utah Jazz superstar Deron Williams and Dee Brown, who is attempting to get back in the NBA after playing in Turkey last season. Roger Powell, who is in camp with the San Antonio Spurs is also expected to attend, as is current Houston Rocket Luther Head. They will match skills against the other final four team in recent years, the 1989 squad. Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson and others are expected back in what should be an unbelievable night. After the basketball is finished for the night, a ceremony honoring 30 former players having their jerseys raised to the Assembly Hall rafters will take place. It is about time that something like this is being done to honor past players. Coaching the teams will be Lou Henson, who coached the Illini for 21 years and is the winningest coach in Illini history, and Jimmie Collins, who was an assistant for so many years for Henson. One honor that needs to be given is to name the court at Assembly Hall after Lou Henson. This is way overdue. Are you listening, DIA?
The women's volleyball team came away from the Billiken Invitational with a 2-1 record, defeating St. Louis and William & Mary, but falling to Stanford, who is ranked #3 in the nation in the AVCA rankings. This week, Don Hardin takes his squad down to Knoxville to compete in the Tennessee Comcast Classic, which will feature Dayton and Gardner-Webb, in addition to the host Volunteers. The Illini currently stand at 5-1 on the season.
As the volleyball team arrives in Knoxville, the women's soccer team had just come from there, splitting a couple of matches in the Lady Vol Classic. The Illini defeated Washington State 2-1, with the goals coming from freshman Marissa Mykines and sophomore Cory Steigerwald. The Illini then fell to the host Volunteers 1-0 in the title match, as both teams went scoreless until Tennessee broke through in the 60th minute of the contest. The Illini are 4-1 on the season and will head south this weekend to face Florida on Friday night, before finishing up their Sunshine State road trip with Central Florida on Sunday.
Enjoy the legends, folks!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

And they're off............................

Ok, maybe it wasn't the best of games for the Fighting Illini to open the 2008 football season. What with the top 5 team they went against, a hostile environment, and a late start, things just didn't go the way they were planned. Yes, Illinois was coming off a lopsided defeat at the hands of the USC Trojans in the Rose Bowl back on New Year's Day and had several new pieces of the puzzle to try and fit together, but did we really expect this? Granted, Missouri is a great football team, as Coach Zook stated several times before and after the game. But, it was the way that the Tigers did it to the Illini that leave people scratching their heads. Missouri gained 226 yards on the ground, as workhorse back Derrick Washington chewed up the Illini defense. Added to that effort was the arm of Chase Daniel and the legs of Jeremy Maclin, and you have a recipe for defeat. Daniel didn't have the best of days, and as far as Maclin goes, that guy is good! His kickoff return of 99 yards right after Illinois took their only lead of the game kind of took the wind out of their sails. The game sort of reminded me of another big game that the Illini played indoors a few years ago. Rewind back to the Sugar Bowl of 2002 in New Orleans when a surprising Illinois team garnered their first ever BCS bowl berth and got the fortune of taking on an LSU Tiger team that not only had a home field advantage, but a raucous crowd as well that kept chanting "Tiger Bait" to anyone dressed in orange and blue. Granted, this Tiger crowd last Saturday was not nearly as mean as the one in Louisiana, but they were strong in number, often drowning out the Illini faithful in attendance. Juice Williams had a very productive evening, throwing for 451 yards and 5 touchdowns. The Tigers neutralized Aurellious Benn most of the night, leaving Will Judson (#13 right) and Chris Duvalt (#15, below, right) open, and both of those players caught 2 touchdowns apiece.
Which brings us to this week's game, the home opener at newly renovated Memorial Stadium as part of the Illinois Renaissance Celebration. There will be many former gridiron legends in attendance, and at each timeout of the game, a certain group of them will be recognized by position. If you haven't seen the stadium lately, it looks great and Zook said at his weekly press conference that he hopes that the team plays as good as the stadium looks. The opponent, Eastern Illinois (11:00 am, Saturday, Big Ten Network), plays in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), and is currently ranked #18 in that division. The Panthers have a number of area products on their team, most notably at quarterback. Bodie Reeder, who played his high school ball at Mahomet-Seymour, runs the Panthers' offense and according to their coach Bob Spoo, is really coming on strong this year. The Panthers were defeated in their opener last week by Central Michigan 31-12, but will give the Illini their best shot this week, as most in-state schools do. The Illini will look to fix some of the mistakes that were committed against Missouri, and as Zook eloquently put it this week, they will fix what needs fixing and move on from there. He still thinks that this is a good football team and improved over last season, but a strong effort against Eastern Illinois will be needed to get the Illini back on track.
Plans are still being finalized for the "Night Of Legends" alumni basketball game, which is set for Saturday, September 13. Many former players are expected to attend, including Olympian Deron Williams and Dee Brown, both of whom are included in the 20 players that will have their uniform numbers raised to the Assembly Hall rafters. A list of the players that will be so honored can be found at Also, this past week, the schedule for the 2008-09 season was announced, and the highlight on the home schedule is the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Clemson. For a look at the complete schedule, visit and click on the basketball link.
Both the women's volleyball and soccer teams have also begun their respective seasons, and both are off to fast starts. Don Hardin's volleyball team won their annual State Farm Illini Classic, defeating #23 New Mexico State (24-26, 25-21, 25-19, 25-14), and then pulling one of the more shocking wins in recent memory by dispatching #11 Oregon by scores of 14-25, 16-25, 26-24, 25-21, and 15-13. What was most significant by this victory was the fact that the Illini had to come from behind to do so. The victories move the Illini to 3-0 on the season, and this weekend, the road does not get any easier when they travel to St. Louis to play in the Billiken Invitational. Among the teams thet will be facing are national runner-up Stanford, William & Mary, and the host St. Louis Billikens.
Janet Rayfield's soccer team also is 3-0 on the young season after a pair of wins in the Illini Challenge Cup over Dayton (1-0 in overtime) and Iowa State (3-1). Emily Zurrer, fresh off a trip to China to play for her native Canada in the Olympics, headed in the winning goal in the 96th minute for the win over the Flyers. The Illini travel to Knoxville, Tennessee this weekend to compete in the First Tennessee Lady Vol Classic, where they will face the host Volunteers and the Washington State Cougars.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pregame Blog - Illinois vs. Missouri

Rejoice, college football fans, because your time is finally here! Yes, I'm talking about the opening weekend of the college football season. I'm sitting high atop the Edward Jones Dome anticipating the kickoff of the game between Illinois and Missouri. This game has been hyped like no other in recent memory, with both teams beginning the regular season in the Top 20. The atmosphere in and around the Dome is a festive one, with parties and gatherings going on outdoors, and now that fans are starting to file in, the place is taking on a sort of orange-goldish look. This is a rivalry that has taken on quite a life of its own, and is trying hard to stay along the same realm that the basketball series has done. Both coaches, Ron Zook of the Illini, and Gary Pinkel of the Tigers, are no stranger to atmospheres like this, and they each have their team as prepared for this game as possible. Missouri, which starts the season at #6 in the country, is led by their stellar quarterback, Chase Daniel and a star-studded receiver in Jeremy Maclin. The Tigers like to move it up and down the field, and with an offense as high-powered as this one is, they shouldn't have any trouble doing so. Trying to stop them will be an Illini defense that is getting better the older and more experienced it becomes. Doug Pilcher and David Lindquist lead a defensive front that will get some help from linebackers Brit Miller and Martez Wilson. Offensively for the Illini, Juice Williams returns for his junior year and will have some new bodies to turn to in the backfield. To replace the NFL-bound Rashard Mendenhall, the Illini will counter with a trio of backs, led by Daniel Dufrene and freshmen Jason Ford and Mikel Leshoure. Regardless of the outcome of this game, it promises to be a barn burner and the team coming out on top will have the early edge in the polls. Please stay tuned for a recap of the game coming some time this Labor Day Weekend.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Illini Football Preview - Part 2

With just one week until the first game for Ron Zook in this his fourth season as coach of the Fighting Illini, it's time to get defensive, or more subtle, talking about the defense. It is possible that the defensive unit is even better than they were last year, even after losing J Leman to graduation. Brit Miller returns to anchor the defense at linebacker, and in this his senior season, is poised to do what Leman did last season. On the front line, David Lindquist and Doug Pilcher return, as do Josh Brent and Jerry Brown. One of the newcomers, Reggie Ellis, hails from Washington, D.C. and is one of the now familiar Dunbar High School products to make their way west. At linebacker, Miller will be joined by Sam Carson III and Martez Wilson, who promises to have a breakout sophomore season even better than his freshman year. Russell Ellington and Dustin Jefferson also figure to see some time as well. The defensive back position is one of speed and agility, and is led by Vontae Davis (#1, below), who is one of the top defensive players in the entire conference, if not the nation. You will recall back in the Rose Bowl when Davis ran down the USC ball carrier as if to come out of nowhere to make the tackle. It is speed like this that can give Coach Zook the confidence that similar plays are just around the corner in 2008. Also in the secondary are Nate Bussey, Travon Bellamy, Bo Flowers, Donsay Hardeman, Supo Sanni, and Marcus "Miami" Thomas. This speed and depth will be needed early on, when the Illini battle the Missouri Tigers and their sensation Jeremy Maclin.
The kicking game, suspect a year ago, is a little more clear this time around, but not much. Anthony Santella seems to have the punting job locked up as Camp Rantoul came to an end, but the placekicking game seemed a bit more cloudy. Last season, Michael Cklamovski did some kickoffs, but with the addition of freshmen Matt Eller and Derek Dimke, competition seems to be occuring. When asked the other day which player had the edge coming out of training camp, Zook seemed to think that Dimke was leading the pack, but anything can happen and it will be interesting to see who will be handling placekicking duties when the Illini and the Tigers do battle in the dome. Speaking of which, be sure to listen to morning sports on Fridays before each Illini game for an official preview of the upcoming matchup. Then on Mondays, hear a recap of each game, as well as comments from coaches and players.
Coming into the matchup against Missouri (7:30 pm, Saturday, August 30 ESPN), the Illini find themselves ranked #15 in the coaches poll. This is the first time in several years that the Illini have been ranked in the preseason, and with the Tigers in the top 10, this promises to be a great opening game with the feel of a bowl game, given the teams' lofty rankings. While other teams in the conference may not be playing the same caliber of opponent as the Illini are, the conference seems to be stacked once again with a few teams at the top. Besides Ohio State, the Wisconsin Badgers and the Illini are expected to be at the head of the class, with Purdue and Michigan figuring to be somewhere in the middle.
Activities are continuing to cme together for the Reniassance Celebration on September 6th against Eastern Illinois. A long list of players returning for the event can be found at and this past week it was announced that there will be a panoramic picture from the air, as well as from groud level of the stadium. Fans are encouraged to buy their 'Zook Zone' towels to wave them at the game to create an aura of orange that will mimic past 'Paint The Hall Orange' nights at the Assembly Hall.
So, now that the football season is officially upon us, buckle those seat belts, turn that television to the Big Ten Network (yes, even you Comcast folks!), and get ready for an unbelievable 2008 football season!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

2008 Illinois Football Preview - Part 1

Fans in attendance at the Fighting Illini's annual Rantoul scrimmage on Monday evening were treated to an offensive show that may soon become the norm rather than the exception. And good news for Ron Zook is that nobody got hurt in the process. Rewind one year ago at the scrimmage where wide receiver Chris James (#6, pictured at right) sustained an injury that kept him out the entire season, and receiver Aurellious "Regus" Benn also was banged up, but both of those players came out of this year's event unscathed. The offense looks a bit different starting the 2008 campaign with Rashard Mendenhall now in the NFL with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Zook knew he would need to replace those carries to make the offense go and build on last season's Rose Bowl appearance. He may have found a couple of answers to that question. Junior Daniel Dufrene and true freshman Jason Ford (#21 below, right) were impressive to say the least, and redshirt freshman Troy Pollard and another true freshman, Mikel LeShoure, also had plenty of chances. When asked about how the scrimmage went on Monday, Zook did not hesitate when he said that this may have been the best scrimmage that he has been a part of in all his years of coaching. Besides the running game, the Illini also expect to do some damage in the recieving corps. Benn, of course, is back, as well as James, who is fully recovered from the injury, and other players expected to make their mark include returning wideouts Marques Wilkins and Chris Duvalt, as well as Will Judson, who made a couple of nice catches on Monday. Joining this trio will be freshmen A.J. Jenkins and Cordale Scott, two players who figure to be in the mix and could form some interesting formations on offense. The two main tight ends, Jeff Cumberland and Michael Hoomanawanui, also figure to get more involved in the offensive scheme this season.
The offensive line is experienced, with returning players Jon Asamoah, Randall Hunt, Xavier Fulton, Eric Block and Ryan McDonald back for another go. A whole host of freshmen or redshirt freshmen that include the likes of Corey Lewis, Jeff Allen, Jack Cornell, Mark Jackson and Graham Pocic may see some time. As Zook likes to say, there is competition at every position and that could be no more evident than on the offensive line. Pocic, a true freshman that enrolled early, brings a lot of talent to the table and could be a special player before he leaves lllinois. Fans can expect to see more of the high-powered offensive sets that Zook has instilled into his system, and as the recruiting battle heats up for 2009 and beyond, he and the coaching staff continue to bring in the top tier players that can continue what he has begun to build at Illinois.

The Fighting Illini Fan Appreciation Day is set for Sunday, August 17 from 1-2:30 at Memorial Stadium. Fans will get a chance to get autographs of their favorite players, and also meet Coach Ron Zook at the same time. The Illini women's volleyball team will also be on hand to greet fans young and old alike, as well as sign autographs and poster schedules.

With all of this talk about football dominating the past week and a half, there has been plenty of basketball talk as well, with several events that are upcoming that are sure to be crowd pleasers. First of all, "A Night of Legends" is planned for Saturday, September 13th at the Assembly Hall. Deron Williams, current Olympian and Utah Jazz guard, will be one of three players that will have their jersey numbers hung from the rafters of the Hall. A total of 20 men's jerseys and one women's jersey will be honored, and along with Williams, Luther Head and Dee Brown will be honored as well. Other players confirmed to attend the event are James Augustine, Roger Powell, Kenny Battle, Victor Chukwudebe and Sergio McClain. This should be one of the most anticipated events of the season. Season ticket holders get first dibs on tickets for the event, and should any remain from those, the general public will get a chance to order them beginning on August 21 at the athletic ticket box office, or online at Then, on October 11 after the Minnesota football game, the Fighting Illini will hold the world's largest basketball practice, as they unveil a basketball court in the south endzone of Memorial Stadium to begin the 2008-09 basketball campaign. The court, assembled by FlexCourt Athletics of Kewanee, will already be assembled before the football game, so a smooth and seamless transition can occur into the basketball practice. The practice will be similar to the Illini Madness events of the past, with both the men's and women's teams introduced. Three-point shooting and slam dunk contests will also take place. Then, after the scrimmage, the Athletic Department will make available the court to be bid on, so you can take home the actual court used for this event.
Finally, in what will be a huge event for the Assembly Hall, Deron Williams and the Utah Jazz will take on Derrick Rose and the Chicago Bulls in an exhibition game on Friday, October 17 at 7:30 pm. Tickets for this event go on sale on Saturday, August 23 at 10:00 am at the normal ticket outlets, and range in price from $25 to $70.
Enough Illini sports for ya? Next week I'll preview the Illini defensive alignment as they continue to get ready for their first game in 2 weeks against Missouri.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The question begs.....Are you ready for some football??

As the calendar turns to August, thoughts begin to ponder students returning to school for the fall semester, leaves turning colors and eventually falling, and Yes, I'm talking Illini football. Ron Zook begins his fourth season as Illini coach and expectations are running higher than ever this season as training camp begins. The Illini, fresh off a trip to the Rose Bowl and a 9-4 season, Illinois and Zook have a lot to prove that 2007 was not a fluke. Sunday afternoon was Illini Media Day at Rantoul, and Zook spoke to several media members in attendance, stressing that one good season does not necessarily propel a program to turn the proverbial corner. Zook also said that it is up to this year's sophomore class and incoming freshman class to instill in future recruiting classes that you just don't simply show up at Illinois and go to a Rose Bowl. The upperclassmen that have been with the team two and three years went through some rough times, but all of those subpar seasons ultimately led to the success that the Illini experienced last season. Zook will have the nucleus back this season, led by quarterback Juice Williams and top flight receiver Aurellious Benn. The Illini will have some big shoes to fill with the departure of Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL, but guys like Daniel Dufrene, Mikel LeShoure and Troy Pollard will try to rise to the occasion. With training camp set to begin on Monday, a lot of questions remain in regards to who will be battling who for certain positions, but one thing is clear, with the talent level Zook and his assistants have brought in, there will be talent aplenty ready to wage war for their positional battles.
If you haven't purchased tickets for the 2008 season yet, you might want to act quickly because tickets are going fast. Tickets for the Ohio State game on November 15 and Iowa on November 1 are already sold out, while tickets for the Indiana and Minnesota games are nearing sellout status. Tickets in the horseshoe section are already sold out for the season, due largely in part to $77 for the season package. The first five rows of Memorial Stadium, normally blocked off due to poor sight lines because of players standing on the sidelines, have been opened up for the Indiana and Minnesota games and expect to be gone soon.
September 6th figures to be a landmark day for the Fighting Illini for many reasons. Deemed the Illinois Renissance Celebration and rededication of the renovation to Memorial Stadium, many former Illini are expected to be in attendance. Several former players have already announced that they will be attending the event, among them Craig Swoope, Dana Howard, Joe Rutgens, Kurt Kittner, Rich Kreitling, Mike Martin, Jack Trudeau, Dick Butkus and Don Thorp, with many others soon to follow. The former greats are part of the 10 greatest players at each position, with each group being recognized at one of the 8 timeouts during the game. To further enhance the festivities, the current Illini squad will be donning throwback jerseys for that game.
All news from the Illini nation is not good, however. Oft-troubled shooting guard Jamar Smith, who was reinstated to the basketball program after a school imposed redshirt stemming from the February 14, 2007 accident that seriously injured former Illini player Brian Carlwell, was once again caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smith was on probation from the incident and last weekend was picked up once again for underage drinking. Coach Bruce Weber issued a brief statement saying in effect that Smith has been dismissed from the team, but would not further comment on the situation due to court legalities. Smith, who was expected to be one of the Illini's best shooters, has had a rough time since the incident involving Carlwell on that snowy night nearly a year and a half ago. And it's a shame too, that the young man has chosen this course for his life. It brings to mind other former Illini players such as Larry Smith and Ervin Small, both who saw their careers come to an end because of bad choices. My hope is that Jamar will decide to get his life back on track and decide that what has happened is not the way he wanted things to go. I do think that Weber made the right decision, and still stand by my opinion that he should never been given a second chance after that first incident.
Upcoming blogs will preview the 2008 Illini football season and the happenings from Camp Rantoul as the season opener draws closer.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

With the Big Ten Network nearing its first birthday, the channel has endured some good times, as well as bad ones (mostly good). Last season, the network followed the exploits of the Minnesota basketball program with a show entitled 'Minnesota Basketball: The Journey'. For those of you that either did not have the network, or chose not to watch the show, it went behind the scenes with coach Tubby Smith and went into practice sessions, and even team meetings. The coverage was pretty thorough, and entertaining television to say the least. To kick off their second season of coverage, the network will be following coach Ron Zook this fall with a show aptly named 'Illinois Football: The Journey'. They will begin at training camp in Rantoul and chronicle the season to give people a glimpse of what it is like to be in the inner circle of the football program. I have been fortunate the last couple of years to get a taste of this myself, but this show even goes deeper than I have access to, since normally we are not allowed into team meetings. Coach Zook is really capitalizing on the success of last season's Rose Bowl squad, and for some people, the sights and sounds of Camp Rantoul cannot get here fast enough.
The renovation of Memorial Stadium is coming along according to schedule, and with the first home game just a couple of months away, things are beginning to take shape. The promotions staff at Illinois are ahead of the game as well, as they plan on unveiling the "Zook Zone" towel (pictured at right), an orange towel to be waved at games this upcoming season. For just $7, fans can purchase one of these towels, which are currently on sale at Gameday Spirit locations across Champaign-Urbana, and will also be sold on game days outside the stadium. Of that price, $1 will go to Coaches vs. Cancer, getting Zook involved with Coach Weber and Coach Law on that front at the University of Illinois. What a sight to be seen this year with several thousand of those towels being waved in refurbished Memorial Stadium!
Speaking of the football season, if you haven't bought your season tickets for the 2008 season yet, you might want to get on that soon. The football office reported this week that season ticket sales have climbed over the 40,000 mark, which includes the reduced price horseshoe tickets, as well as the 'Zook Zone' student section. With the remodeling of the stadium, the capacity of the stadium has been decreased, leaving less tickets to be had for this season. It is amazing as to what a successful season can do to a program. Looking back at the basketball team in 2004-05 and their miraculous final four run to the national title game, and you can see how success breeds more success. Just as recently as three years ago, the football program was in near shambles, but a couple of seasons with promise, not to mention the addition of several key players to the mix, and the football program has elevated to the top of people's interest list at Illinois. Single game tickets go on sale July 22 at 9:00 am, so if you haven't purchased them yet, you still have time!

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Summer Daze - UI style!

Summer time on the University of Illinois campus is always lacking in excitement from a sporting perspective, with the absence of the athletic teams on the field. Summer camps and recreation leagues fill the void for sports. However, that doesn't mean that the Illini aren't in the news. Former Illini basketball standout Deron Williams, now with the Utah Jazz, was named to the U. S. Olympic Team in basketball. Williams, who finished his third season in the NBA, is one of the premier players in the league, and should serve the Americans well in August in Beijing. Also being named to the Olympic squad is former Illini gymnast Justin Spring. Spring, who is currently an assistant coach with the Illini gymnastics squad, qualified this past weekend for China, and should be an asset to the squad. More Illini athletes making news include baseball and football star Kyle Hudson, who was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles in the amateur draft. Hudson, who has not made an official decision on whether or not he will pursue the professional contract, or return for his senior year, was named to the All-American squad as a third team selection. If Hudson decides not to return to the Illini, a void will be created on both the football and baseball teams.
If you have driven by the football stadium on campus lately, you may have noticed some progress on the new pressbox. The outside of the structure is beginning to take shape, and driving east on Kirby Avenue towards the stadium will present a view that is both new and refreshing. According to project coordinator Warren Hood, the new pressbox should be completed by the Illini's opening game on September 6th against Eastern Illinois. That game will be the dedication of the renovation, and also the celebration of 10 former greats of Memorial Stadium, that include Jeff George, Dick Butkus, and current Pittsburgh Steelers running back and 2007 graduate Rashard Mendenhall. The Illini will open the season on August 30 in St. Louis against the Missouri Tigers.
It may have been a year too late for most people in this area, but Comcast and the Big Ten Network finally have struck a deal in time for the 2008 football season. Comcast, who took over Insight Communications in 2007, was in stalled negotiations with the network, causing the majority of viewers in the Champaign-Urbana area without a satellite system to be shut out of programming. What this means is that starting with the fall sports season, most everyone in central Illinois will be able to see their Illini, not to mention other Big Ten teams when they are telecast by the Big Ten Network. Too little, too late? Maybe, but still, something that in my opinion should never have taken this long to settle.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

End of another sports season

Ah, Memorial Day Weekend. The start of summer and warmer weather. Well, that last one we're still waiting for. With the Fighting Illini baseball team bowing out of the Big Ten Tournament in Ann Arbor, Michigan, the sports season at the University of Illinois is also history. The spring sports season was not one that will set any records, but it was also more productive than they have been in the past. To kind of catch everyone up to date, the women's softball team finished their season below the .500 mark, ending at 30-32 with a 9-1 loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament at Northwestern University in Evanston. The Illini finished the Big Ten portion of their season at 8-12, which is a down year for coach Terri Sullivan. The Illini grabbed a quick 1-0 lead in the game, only to see the Hawkeyes come back and score 9 unanswered runs for the lopsided win.
The Illini baseball team finished their season much better in the wins column, as they racked up 31 victories against just 25 losses. Their Big Ten mark was 16-15, which was good enough to earn them a berth in the aforementioned Big Ten Tourney. Their first opponent was the Ohio State Buckeyes this past Wednesday, and the Illini came out on top 3-2. That win gave them an opportunity to play the host school, #17 Michigan, and the Wolverines sent the Illini to the losers' bracket with a 5-2 defeat. In a double elimination tournament, you get another chance to redeem yourself by winning out, and the Illini faced the Indiana Hoosiers on Friday in a must-win contest. The Illini fell behind early, but came back to make it close, but they just couldn't get over the hump in falling to the Hoosiers 14-7, thus ending their season. The Illini placed 5 players on Big Ten all-conference teams, with centerfielder Kyle Hudson, second baseman Joe Bonnadonna, shortstop Brandon Wikoff, and designated hitter Daniel Webb garnering second team honors. Starting pitcher Kevin Manson, who pitched the Illini to the victory over the Buckeyes in the tournament opener, received third team honors. Now, the big decision facing Hudson is whether or not to turn pro or come back and complete his final season as a member of the Illini football team. Hudson is sure to be drafted in the Major League Baseball draft, which takes place on June 5 and 6. The main question now is, whether he should wait another year and possibly increase his resume even more to warrant a higher draft selection. Only time will tell, but that time is drawing near.
Every 10 years, the University of Illinois plays host to the Big Ten outdoor track and field conference championships, and this year was the Illini's turn to host. Now that the Big Ten Network is here, many more people were able to see the meet, and from what I saw of it on television, the track stadium looked mighty good on the national scene. Gakologelwang Masheto led the Illini runners by placing second in two events, the 400 meters and also competing in the 4 X 400 meter relay team. As a team, the Illini men finished ninth overall with 59 points, 19 of them contributed by Masheto himself. On the women's side, a much better result, as Brianna Cunningham won the 400 meter hurdles, while Angela Bizzarri was runner-up in the 5000 meters. The women brought home a fourth place showing in the meet.
Since we are at the beginning of summer, thoughts have begun to turn towards football season, and what will happen as a follow-up to the very successful Rose Bowl season of 2007. The stadium reconstruction is coming along nicely, and a drive by on Florida Avenue will give you a totally different view of the new pressbox, standing proudly high atop a refurbished stadium. The 2008 opener is scheduled for August 30 at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, Missouri against the Missouri Tigers. The game will be televised in prime time on ESPN at 6:45 pm central time, meaning that the nation will get an early look at Coach Ron Zook and his football squad.
Two other games at Memorial Stadium have start times for the upcoming season, the homecoming game on October 11 against Minnesota (11:00 am), and the following Saturday, the 18th of October, another prime time start against Indiana (7:00 pm). For some, the season cannot start soon enough.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spring Sports Time!

Yes, it's been a while since I graced these pages, but the coming of spring and nicer weather have taken me outside and away from the keyboard of my laptop. In case you haven't been paying attention during the past month, Bill Self did indeed get the national championship that had been eluding him all these years. All I can say to that is, good for him. Now, let's move on with another topic, which involves both the men's and women's basketball teams at Illinois. It has been a rough go of it for both Bruce Weber and Jolette Law, as they have seen players leave their squads this month. On the men's side, junior Rodney Alexander will not return next season for the Illini, and Steve Holdren is getting his degree and is not planning on returning as well. With the losses of Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle to graduation, that leaves four vacancies on the roster for next season. Incoming freshman Stan Simpson and junior college transfer Dominique Keller will cut that number in half, but it leaves a void, especially down in the low post where Mike Tisdale will anchor next season. Jamar Smith returns from his suspension/redshirt season, and transfer Alex Legion will become eligible in December, giving the Illini a much better outside shooting tandem. Word has it that Brian Carlwell is still weighing his options about rejoining the team, but that remains to be seen if that will indeed happen.
On the women's side, the departure of Lori Bjork has left a gaping hole for Coach Law to fill. Bjork, who never saw eye to eye with Law since her arrival, plans to transfer, and it looks as if she may head east to Ball State, where former Illini assistant Marcia Frese went to coach. Also, freshman Chelsea Buher is leaving the team, most likely unhappy with the way playing time went for her as well. Add Danyel Crutcher to the list earlier in the season, and Law is playing with three less players. According to Law, getting the negative out of the program is tantamount to moving in the right direction. Upon Crutcher leaving, the Illini went on the Big Ten Tournament run and just missed the NCAA Tournament. Here's hoping that she is on track.
Last Saturday was the annual Spring game for the football team, coming off of their Rose Bowl appearance. In front of 12,ooo fans at a still-under-construction Memorial Stadium, the Illini faithful were treated to several spectacular plays. One in particular, a punt run back by Jerrod Fayson, electrified the crowd in attendance. Unfortunately for Fayson , he must sit out this coming season due to transfer rules. Fayson transferred from Florida last semester, and gave Illini fans a glimpse of what he can do. It appears that Juice Williams will be the starting quarterback when Camp Rantoul commences in August, but don't count out Eddie McGee just yet. Receiver Aurellious Benn was held out of contact, due to off-season shoulder surgery, and the Illini welcomed back Chris James, also recovering from an injury sustained last season. The future continues to look bright for Ron Zook and the football program, and with a challenging schedule for 2008, another bowl trip is certainly a possibility.
The Fighting Illini baseball team has endured what many northern schools go through each and every season, games either cancelled or postponed due to cold or wet weather. Just the pitfalls of living in the midwest, I guess. To date, the Illini have had 6 contests wiped out, and lately have gotten the most out of the nice spring weather that has graced Central Illinois. On Wednesday, the Illini played host to Western Illinois and defeated the Leathernecks 10-2 on a nice pitching outing by Nick Chmielewski. The Illini return to action this weekend to Illinois Field to face Penn State in a four-game series starting on Friday evening. Hopefully the rains will hold off so the Illini can get all or most of these games in. The Illini are 23-14 on the season.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Busted Brackets, Bucknell Bill, and Baseball?

Over the past couple of weeks, the NCAA Men's basketball tournament has taken on a different feel with no Illini involved. To go one step further, there was no single team from the Land of Lincoln in this year's tourney, which certainly limited the rooting interests of local fans. By now, I'm sure most of your brackets are trashed, as are mine, due to upstarts such as Davidson and Western Kentucky advancing much further than anyone anticipated. But, as we near the Final Four weekend, I do have a few observations about the 2008 tourney. (I have to do something, since the Illini didn't even qualify for the inaugural CBI tourney!). The first observation is that there were plenty of teams that Illini fans were hoping would lose, and lose early. Indiana, Tennessee, Memphis and Kansas are just a few that come to mind. The Hoosiers took care of that fairly early, as the train wreck in Bloomington created by Kelvin "don't call me, but I'll sure call you" Sampson just kept spiraling downward. Indiana resembled a badly sinking ship against Arkansas, and for Illinois fans anyway, they feel as if justice has been served with the whole Eric Gordon saga. The news gets progessively worse for the Hoosiers, as on Tuesday a story broke about current Hoosiers coach Dan Dakich kicking off two more players. You think to yourself, when will it end? Adding to the busted brackets talk, the showing of the Big Ten in the tournament. Which leads to my next observation; was the Big Ten as bad as everyone else in the country perceived it? Only 4 teams made the dance from the conference, and they all advanced beyond the first round, except for the aforementioned Indiana. Purdue scored 90 points in their first game, which proves that the league was good for one thing, and that was keeping scores low due to tight defense. In the Sweet 16 matchups, the two survivors of the conference, Wisconsin and Michigan State, couldn't hold it together. The Spartans played what could have been their worst half of basketball all season long, and the Badgers ran into the Davidson juggernaut that almost dethroned Kansas. Which leads me into.......

Bucknell Bill! The moniker given to Jayhawks coach Bill Self, for his early exit in the 2005 tourney to the Bison, finally can shed the title of "Best Coach To Never Make It To A Final Four", although it was anything but easy. As a matter of fact, it was downright gut-wrenching for the ex-Illini coach, who had dreams and visions of "having an office on Naismith Drive". Self and another former Illini coach, Lon Kruger, went head-to-head in the tournament, something that hadn't been done in a very long time. Seriously, I'm happy for Bill Self, because this year he had the talent to make the final four, but going up against top-seeded North Carolina will be a tall order. The news that broke on Tuesday about Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton was fired, sending all kinds of speculation about the next coach in Stillwater. Self played there, and is an Oklahoma native. Hmmmmmm.

This blog wouldn't be complete without talking a little bit about Illini baseball. During the fall and winter, the grass surface was taken out at Illinois Field and replaced with an artificial turf, similar to what the football stadium has on it. Weather has played a major factor in getting the Illini on the home field, as they are set to get things underway on Wednesday. Next week, I will preview the baseball and softball teams, and catch everyone up on how the respective teams are doing.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Big Ten Tournament Musings - Day 2

Many think that the first day of the Big Ten Tournament doesn't mean that much. Try telling that to the teams that actually win and live to play another day. The Michigans, Minnesotas, and the Fighting Illini all accomplished that feat on Thursday, and are locked into the quarterfinals of the tourney. The atmosphere becomes electric on Friday, as the top tier teams begin action. Top-seeded Wisconsin and ninth seeded Michigan kicked off the morning session, and Wisconsin had the edge early, as Michigan is showing the effects of playing on the first day. Michigan made a comeback near the end of the first half, but Wisconsin kept the advantage, leading 26 to 18 at the half. Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan helped bring the Wolverines closer by getting a technical foul called on him. Despite how badly Michigan played in the first half, Wisconsin didn't actually do themselves any favors, and the game could still be in the balance. However, in the second half, Michigan played much like they did on Thursday in the second stanza, and fell to the Badgers 51-34. Michigan ends their season at 10-22 and most likely will not be in any of the postseason tournaments, due to their record. Wisconsin lives to see another day, and will be in the semifinals on Saturday taking on

In the second quarterfinal game of the day, Michigan State, seeded fourth, took on the fifth seeded Ohio State Buckeyes in a game that was up and down the court at full speed. Michigan State always travels well, and this year was no exception, as they brought a lot of fans to Indianapolis to root their team on. The game went back and forth for much of the first half, with neither team pulling ahead by a large margin. These are fun games to watch, because both teams give it their all. At the half, the score was tied at 30, meaning both teams almost equaled what Michigan scored in the entire first game! The second half began with both teams leveling off a bit from their first half output. Every time that it looked like Michigan State would run away and hide, Ohio State would find a way to get back into the game. The contest went down to the final few minutes, where Michigan State eventually pulled the game out by a score of XX to XX. Ohio State, on the proverbial NCAA "bubble", may have seen their tournament chances take a serious hit with this loss. Michigan State's Drew Neitzel delivered for the Spartans, scoring XX points.
The Buckeyes drop to 19-13, and will be very interested onlookers for the remainder of the weekend, as they hope for an NCAA bid as an at-large team.

The Fighting Illini were the third game if the day, and the atmosphere was very electric in Conseco at the start of this game! With Purdue only about 50 miles from Indianapolis, it was no wonder that they had a large fan base following them. But, looking up into the stands, it seemed that all the other fan bases were cheering for the Boilers as well, giving them a decided home court advantage. The Illini fell behind early in the game, but they managed to come back each and every time. Guys like Mike Davis and Jeff Jordan have given the Illini the spark that they needed. The Illini fought back to tie Purdue at 28 apiece heading into the halftime locker room. In the second half, the Illini held tight with the Boilermakers, and every time that Purdue pulled ahead, the Illini had an answer. Demetri McCamey really came into his own in this game, as well as Jordan. After a hard fought battle, the game went into overtime tied at 63 apiece. In the overtime period, the Illini struck first, and McCamey kept the Illini going. After a long and grueling battle against the Boilers, the Illini bounce Purdue from the Big Ten Tourney 74-67 in overtime to earn a berth in the semifinals on Saturday.

The final game of the evening featured the second seeded Indiana Hoosiers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Minnesota jumped on Indiana early and often, and at one time had a 16 point lead. Indiana chipped away at the lead, and only trailed by 7 at 34-27 at the break. In the second half, the Hoosiers came back and eventually took the lead, making this another game that would go down to the wire. Despite all that has happened to the Indiana basketball program over the last month, the ending to this game has to be the icing on the cake. Blake Hoffarber took a long inbounds pass and hit the game winning shot, a la Christian Laettner, to seal the Hoosiers' fate. So, with both Indiana and Purdue bounced from the tournament on the same day, tickets should be pretty easy to find for the game on Saturday.

The Illini will take on Minnesota in the semifinal matchup, a team that they have beaten 19 straight times. Michigan State and Wisconsin will be in the other semifinal matchup, with the winners meeting on Sunday afternoon for the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The improbable run is halfway there, and folks, there is still a chance for the Fighting Illini to be dancing on Selection Sunday!