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.

Friday, January 25, 2008

3 steps to sanity for Illinois basketball fans

So, you say that you're having trouble dealing with the current basketball season at the University of Illinois? Well, let me tell you, things aren't as bad as they seem. Yes, the Fighting Illini are encountering a down year, but then again, all teams sooner or later go through this. Despite what people keep telling me, Illinois fans are spoiled, because they have been used to cheering on winning teams for nearly a decade now, and the first sign of trouble in paradise, they want to run the head coach out of town. 2005 seems like a long time ago when the Illini went on that magical run to the National Championship game, but let's remember that there were 5 legitimate pro prospects on that team, and this year's crop is nowhere close to that caliber. So, with that being said, here are 5 steps that you, the Fighting Illini fan can do to keep the faith.
1. Support the team anyway- I know it is hard to support a team that keeps going down to defeat game in and game out, but fans are fans for several reasons, and this is one of them. In looking at the Assembly Hall on game night the past couple of outings, there have been a lot of people disguised as empty seats. Believe it or not, the team needs your support and if you are not there cheering them on, then they will think that you have given up hope. I realize that people are busy, and this year especially people are finding things to do rather than go to the Assembly Hall. If you have tickets that you are not going to use, why not give them to a friend, so they can experience the ambience that is Assembly Hall. A full house speaks volumes, and it also looks good when the games are broadcast on the Big Ten Network!
2. Wear your colors proud- Okay, so the Chief is no longer dancing at halftime, but that doesn't stop many of the faithful from going through the motions of the 'Three In One'. It really is a sight to behold, and if the story isn't conveyed to the younger generation, I'm afraid in 20 years or so if it is still being done, many will wonder what is happening. Of course, many Illini fans still proudly wear their Chief Illiniwek attire to sporting events, but I've heard grumblings from people that say that they don't feel right wearing it anymore. I guess to each their own, but until the "thought police" outlaw such behavior, it still should be done.
3. Look to the future- I know this one may be tough for people on the anti-Bruce Weber bandwagon, but the next couple of years should be very exciting. We may not win the Big Ten title next year, but at least we will have a couple of pure shooters that will be back with the club. Transfer Alex Legion will be eligible after the fall semester, and Jamar Smith should be cleared to play following redshirting this past season. Then, the news gets even better for 2009, when several players are set to join the Illini. Guys like Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head will undoubtedly bring the Illini back up to where they were a few years ago. Just look what it did to Ron Zook's football team. Also, Bruce informed us today that he has been looking at a seventh grader. A SEVENTH GRADER!! That might be a bit much, but I guess you have to start somewhere. Weber goes on to say that the kid actually looked pretty good, but wouldn't even consider a commitment from anybody like that until they at least get into high school. At any rate, the future looks very bright, so if Illini Nation can get past this year and possible next year as well, then things will improve.
There, that ought to about cover it. Remember, this is just a basketball game, and there is certainly more worth fretting over than how the Illini are doing. This little bump in the road will pass along soon enough, and if the future holds true, the Illini will be back to battling for Big Ten Championships rather than sweating over making the "Big Dance".

Monday, January 14, 2008

A Work In Progress

Those of you that have been anticipating the first meeting between Illinois and Indiana on the basketball court, your wait is now over. On Sunday afternoon, the two teams met for the first time in the Eric Gordon era, and the results were somewhat surprising, given the path each has taken thus far in the 2007-08 college basketball season. Unless you've been living under a rock for the past year and a half, you all know the saga that I am referring to. Gordon, one of the premier recruits in the country, gave Bruce Weber an oral commitment during his junior year, only to reneg on the agreement when the coaching shakedown at Indiana took place near the end of that school year. What followed has haunted Illinois ever since. Mike Davis, now the coach at Alabama-Birmingham, stepped down under harsh criticism from the Hoosier faithful, and his successor, Kelvin Sampson, was brought into the program. This changed the Gordons' mind on where their son should attend, and Sampson recruited him hard, and eventually, Gordon ended up at Indiana. Now, Eric Gordon is a sensational player and a sure lottery pick in the NBA draft next year, but every time the two schools are mentioned in the same breath, this recruiting war keeps resurfacing. Dateline Sunday, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Indiana: The Hoosiers, in the midst of a great season get set to take on the Illini, who are having a rare down year. Nobody, including yours truly, thought that Illinois had much of a chance in this game. But, stranger things have happened, and the Illini kept the game relatively close. If you've been paying attention lately, the recipe to beat the Illini is to play a zone defense. Sampson played man-to-man, and whether that was out of necessity or just plain stubbornness on his part, it kept Illinois in the ballgame until the bitter end. Gordon did lead the Hoosiers with 17 points, but he struggled from the field and didn't really get going until the second half. The return trip to Illinois promises to be more dramatic, as the Illini crowd and the Orange Krush will let Mr. Gordon and his coach hear just what they think of him. From press row, this ought to be a hoot. Coupled with the Illini's loss at Wisconsin earlier in the week, they have put two decent games together, but Bo Ryan played a lot of man defense in that game as well. The key is will the Illini fare this well when they have to face a zone for 40 minutes? I like what Weber is doing with the lineup, playing some of the young players such as Demetri McCamey. Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. At this point, it doesn't hurt to play the youth and give them some valuable experience for next season and beyond. Meanwhile, Jamar Smith and Alex Legion can only observe from the sidelines and wonder "what if...". They will get their chance next season, when the Illini will be a year older and playing without Brian Randle and Shaun Pruitt, their two seniors. Nothing against this duo, but Randle sometimes disappears because of foul trouble, and Pruitt is just not as physical as his stature indicates. Chester Frazier is battling a ribcage injury, but you couldn't tell it the other night against the Badgers, as he was diving out of bounds for loose balls. Frazier didn't play against the Hoosiers, and will rest up for the Illini's next contest against Michigan (Wednesday, 8:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). The next few games will be the key for the Illini, because if they continue to play like they have the last couple of games and find a way to win some games, the season may not be a total wash after all. Yes, the NCAA Tournament looks like a pipe dream at this point, since the Illini currently stand at 8-9 overall and winless in 4 tries in Big Ten play, but the NIT is still a possibility. The last time the Illini had a sub-.500 record was in 1997-98, a year in which they came back to win the Big Ten title. Don't expect this team to achieve that, because frankly, the talent level is just not there. When the time comes for the Big Ten Tournament, however, the Illini could potentially be a spoiler and make a decent run. You never know with this team.

Now that football season is over and the new semester underway at Illinois, Ron Zook has eight players that have enrolled for the spring semester and will be able to take part in the workout drills beginning in March. The players are as follows: Jeff Allen (Chicago King) Lineman, Reggie Ellis (Dunbar HS - Washington, DC) Lineman, Jarred Fayson (Tampa, Florida) Back - transfer from Florida, Mikel LeShoure (Champaign Centennial) Back, Whitney Mercilus (Akron, Ohio) Lineman, Graham Pocic (Lemont, Illinois) Lineman, Fred Sykes (Tampa, Florida) Back, and Ashante Williams (Mayfield, Ohio) Back. This proves that Zook is reloading the talent pool for next season, and even though he is losing some good talent to graduation and the NFL, the future looks bright. Fayson (pictured at right) is an explosive player that played for the Gators last season, but will transfer to the Illini and form quite a speed duo with Aurellious Benn. With talent like this, one would think that another trip to a major bowl is just around the corner.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Back To The Basics

After a month of preparation, the Fighting Illini football team ventured to play in its first postseason bowl game in six years, as they traveled to sunny Southern California to face USC in the grandaddy of them all, the Rose Bowl. It had nearly been 24 years since the Illini had last played in Pasadena, and sadly, the result was nearly the same as that fateful day in 1984. In what was perhaps the hottest team in the country at the time, the Trojans flattened the Illini 49-17, in a game that was pretty much over by halftime. One of the bright spots in an otherwise dull game was the rushing of Rashard Mendenhall. Mendenhall, who had 155 yards on 17 carries, broke a 79 yard touchdown run early in the third quarter to pull the Illini to within 11 at 21-10. However, it would be the closest that the Illini would get on this night, as it was dominated by the Trojans and their offense, which is led by quarterback John David Booty. The Illini did offer a glimpse of the future late in the game, when Eddie McGee hit Aurellious Benn for a 56 yard touchdown pass. Benn, who is a freshman, will be one of the bright stars next season, along with cornerback Vontae Davis and linebacker Brit Miller. Ron Zook has another stellar recruiting class lined up for next season, so the chances of the Illini returning to a big time bowl game will be pretty good for the next several years to come.

Speaking of next year, it looks as if the Illini will have to endure without Mendenhall, who is expected to make his decision to enter the NFL draft later in the week. Mendenhall has called a news conference for Thursday, where the decision should be made. Zook stands behind whatever Rashard wants to do, and given the season that he had, should be taken pretty high on draft day. Sure, Rashard Mendenhall will be missed, but the Illini will reload with another quality back to replace him.

What in the world has happened to the Illini men's basketball team? We knew going into this season that the offense would be a question mark, but what has happened so far in the 2007-08 season I don't think anyone expected. The shooting has been a nightmare, and the worst part about it is that a possible solution cannot do anything about it. Jamar Smith, who is sitting out this season due to suspension, is still far and away the team's best shooter day in and day out at practice, and when he returns for the 2008-09 season, the offense will respond accordingly. But until then, Illini Nation is left to deal with the fact that the Assembly Hall is not the intimidating place that it once was. Three straight losses will tell you that. The Tennessee State loss was devastating, and Ohio State was probably expected as well. However, the Penn State game was there for the taking, and this team just does not have the will to take these close games. You can blame Bruce Weber, as many have done. After all, it is his responsibility to get the players motivated and that clearly is not being done. You see, Illini fans have been spoiled the last few years, as they have rooted on the team in countless NCAA Tournaments, as well as a Final Four appearance in 2005. You can blame the players, because, after all, they are the ones who are out there on the court making (or in some cases, not making) plays. Guys like Chester Frazier, Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle, veterans on this team, should be leaders by now. Nobody has really stepped up. Randle cannot stay on the floor without committing fouls, Frazier, when he is on the court, looks like a lost deer in the headlights, and Pruitt, who should be muscling in the paint to put the ball up, has shown flashes, but doesn't seem to know how to put together two quality halves of basketball in the same game. The younger guys, like Rodney Alexander, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale, don't get the minutes the aforementioned players do, and maybe they should. After all, Weber has repeatedly said that changes are on the way, yet he trots out the same starting lineup game in and game out. After the loss to the Nittany Lions, it appears that freshman Demetri McCamey may have earned a starting spot, either for Frazier, Trent Meacham, or Calvin Brock. McCamey almost singlehandedly brought the Illini back, but even he couldn't do it all. Free throws are an entirely separate issue for this team. By far the worst in the league, they don't do themselves any favors whenever they take a trip to the charity stripe. The term 'free throw', has been anything but free this year, and quite possibly could have lost the Illini several games for their lack of being able to put the ball through the basket. This is evident, even in the defeat to Penn State. The loss puts the Illini at 8-7 overall, and more importantly 0-2 in the Big Ten, which is not a good start at all. The NCAA Tournament is out of reach, and if the season continues at the current pace, so will be the NIT. So, back to Weber and what to do about the season. As I said before, he has taken some harsh criticism by many of the faithful lately, and I can see where these people are coming from. Sure, they will say that he is recruiting the way his mentor, Gene Keady did, and this team is beginning to resemble the Purdue teams that he coached. Weber showed a flash of Keady aganst Penn State, when he flung his sportcoat off during the game. What it might take to get this team back is to find a way, any way, to get ejected out of a ballgame. It appears that Weber has lost this team, and as a result, the season has been lost as well.

However, all hope is not lost, as the Weber critics fail to admit. The recruiting horizon looks bright, and it got a little brighter this past week when Alex Legion transferred in from Kentucky. Legion, who had wavered off and on about leaving the Wildcat program, apparently was swayed when Jerrance Howard was hired as an assistant at Illinois. It was Howard who was instrumental in bringing Legion to Lexington, and when Jerrance joined Weber's staff, it gave Legion the notion that he might be better off in Champaign. Sitting courtside on the team bench, he certainly is getting the idea that he can help this team, even though he won't be eligible to do so until after the Fall semester of 2008. So, with Jamar and Alex both watching and waiting, perhaps the two best shooters on the team cannot do anything about their teammates' offensive ineptitude. Weber was quoted as saying that it was a tough scout squad at practice on Saturday, with Legion and Smith doing their best to show the current Illini team what they are missing.

The news gets better still. On Sunday, Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini and current Houston Rocket Luther Head, verbally announced that he will play for Weber. Head, a 6-4 sophomore, may be even better than his older brother, as was evidenced at the News-Gazette Shootout At The Hall, where he led his Rich South Stars team with 34 points. Head will join fellow recruit Jereme Richmond, as 2 of the Class of 2010. With Stan Simpson set to join the team next year, and then Joseph Bertrand, D. J. Richardson, Brandon Paul on board for 2009, the future looks bright. So, back off the ledge Illini doubters. This season may be lost, but hope should not be. This team will once again return to their glory days. You can bet on it.

Finally, the Illini women's basketball team has hit a bit of a snag, losing their second straight conference road game, this time to Indiana 70-62 at Bloomington. The loss, coupled with a tough 49-48 setback to Penn State last Wednesday night, finishes a tough week for Jolette Law's squad, who fall to 10-5 overall and 2-2 in the Big Ten. Law still has the Illini playing at a higher level than her predecessor, and expect better results in the coming weeks. Just don't expect a free throw shooting contest against the men.