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.

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.

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