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.