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.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Heading for the Homestretch.....

Stop me if you've heard this before. We all know that Bruce Weber is enduring a tough season, and that the Fighting Illini will finish the 2007-08 season with their worst record since the 1998-99 season when Lon Kruger was still head coach. Yes, these are trying times indeed for the Illini faithful, and this poses a few questions as we head toward the month of March and postseason play.

Question #1: Does this Illini team have what it takes to make a run in the Big Ten Tournament and somehow make the NCAA Tournament? Not likely at this point. The Illini have been in most every game that they have played lately, and led all of them at one point. But, free throw shooting continues to plague this team, and games have been lost at the free throw line constantly (see Indiana, Penn State to name a couple). When a team shoots 50% or less from the line in a close game, they do not deserve to win the game, in my opinion. In the double overtime loss to Indiana a couple of weeks back, Shaun Pruitt had not1, not2, but 3 chances to win the game by making a single free throw, and couldn't convert any time. Mind you, these are shots that are not being contested, and from a stationary position. Furthermore, asking this team to win 4 games in 4 days is a very tall order. Normally your seniors are supposed to be your leaders on the court, but lately keeping them on the court has been a monumental task. Brian Randle likes to get into foul trouble, and we all know the issues that Pruitt faced with his attitude that led to him being suspended by Weber last month. Yes, it is possible that the Illini could get on a hot streak and somehow win the tournament, but I wouldn't hedge any bets on it happening.

Question #2: That being said, does this Illini team stand any chance of righting the ship and getting enough wins for inclusion to the NIT? At 11-15 currently, the Illini would need to pretty much win out and at least win 2 games in the Big Ten Tournament for that to be a reality. The Illini have not participated in the NIT since Lou Henson's last year, which was 1996. Weber has stated that it would be a goal to strive for, given the train wreck of a season that they have had. Big Ten teams have fared very well in the NIT as of late, with Michigan winning the tournament a couple of times. Sure, it doesn't have the lustre that the NCAA Tournament has, but it would give the young players on the team some form of postseason experience. My personal opinion on this is that it is more possible than winning the Big Ten Tournament.

Question #3: With a new tournament beginning this season, can the Illini set their sights on that? The College Basketball Invitational, a new postseason venture set forth by the Gazelle Group, gives teams that are not selected for either the NCAA or NIT tournaments a chance to play some extra basketball. Since the NIT pared down their field from 40 to 32 a year ago when the NCAA took over the tourney, it essentially cut 8 teams out of the loop for selection. This new tournament gives teams like the Illini a chance to play for something. At this point, with the season pretty much lost, it makes much sense to start playing the younger players, guys who are going to be around next year. Weber did this at Minnesota and the Illini stormed the Gophers 84-60.

Brian Carlwell has left the basketball program, stemming from the accident a year ago involving Jamar Smith. Carlwell, who only played in 3 games this season, has also been battling a knee injury. He will finish out the semester at Illinois, then seek a transfer to another state school.

So, what do you think about the Illini's prospects for the postseason? Do you think they have what it takes to make a run through the Big Ten Tournament? Or, will they be watching from their apartments? As always, I welcome your comments.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Good Riddance, January!

2008 has not been kind to the Illini sports teams. Beginning with the football team losing 49-17 in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, the month of January has been one to forget. Bruce Weber's basketball team have been struggling all season, especially in the month of January. In 9 contests, they have won just 2, including dropping an 83-75 contest to the Purdue Boilermakers last Saturday. What seems even more puzzling is the home record this season. In the past several seasons, the Assembly Hall has been a place where the Illini have been nearly unbeatable. But, 2007-08 finds the Illini just 6-5 at home, including losses to non-conference foes Miami (Ohio) and Tennessee State. The struggles this season may finally be starting to wear on Weber as well, as his tirade against Purdue will attest. Upset at some of the officiating calls, Weber became agitated and had to be restrained by an assistant coach from storming the court. Yes, this behavior probably wasn't in Weber's best judgement, but when you are used to winning and have a season like the Illini are experiencing, these things are bound to occur. Still, it was a fleeting moment to see Bruce fling off the sportcoat, a la his long-time mentor, Gene Keady.

The date has been circled on the calendar for months now, and the wait is almost over. Indiana and Eric Gordon make their only appearance to Champaign this season, (8:00 pm central time, ESPN) and given the past history in this saga, it should be a memorable event. It was Gordon that spurned the Illini during the recruitment process, something Illini Nation has not forgotten. Bruce Weber said in his weekly address to the media that the coaching staff has moved on from the incident, but fans will not be as forgiving. For those that were in attendance last season when Hoosiers coach Kelvin Sampson was introduced, this welcome for Gordon will make that seem like church. The Orange Krush will make Mr. Gordon's visit one to remember for him, and for those of you watching on television on Thursday need to turn the sound up to hear for yourselves the greeting that he will get. My only hope is that they keep it clean.

Jolette Law's women's team has been enduring a tough January of their own, with just 2 wins in 8 games. Unlike the men, though, the women have been in every game, losing 4 games by 3 points or less. They did, however, end the month on a high note when they defeated #19 Ohio State 68-64 on January 31. This was a defining moment for the Illini, according to Law, and they followed this up by beating Michigan on the road for a two game winning streak. The Illini have
won these games without one of their best players, Danyel Crutcher, who has not been traveling with the team due to a coach's decision. Audrey Tabon also was suspended for a game for missing a practice, but with the Illini starting to play better once again, maybe the worst is behind them. The Illini travel to Minneapolis to battle Minnesota on Thursday night, then it is back to the Assembly Hall on Sunday to face Indiana. The game on Sunday is the "Think Pink" game, where fans can gain free admission to watch the game by wearing the pink shirts given out at Illini Basketball Madness. Coach Law is hoping for a huge turnout on Sunday, and with admission free, the price is certainly right.

Ron Zook mentioned after the Rose Bowl that the most important dates to him were the Missouri game and National Letter of Intent signing day. Wednesday was the day that recruits could officially sign with college teams, and Zook once again has taken in a bumper crop of recruits, 29 in all. Some of the key additions include Corey Liuget, Jared Fayson and Graham Pocic. Zook mentioned that this might be his best recruiting class that he has ever been associated with, which makes the future seem even brighter. So what do you think of the 2008 recruiting class for the Illini? I would be interested in hearing your comments.