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, 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!

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Big Ten Tournament Musings - Day 1

Iowa and Michigan started the tournament off a little after 11:00 am central time. The crowd was a little thin at the start of the first game, with quite a bit of Illini orange sprinkled through. This really is a beautiful venue for basketball, and contrary to many people's opinions, I think Indianapolis is the perfect spot for this tournament. It is centrally located within driving distance to all 11 Big Ten campuses, and it is easy to get around and walk virtually anywhere.
The Wolverines played a good first half, and it looked as if Iowa wasn't even excited to be there. Iowa played very sloppy in the first half, while Michigan built a sizable lead into the halftime break. In the second half, both teams had trouble finding the basket, as it seemed like forever between made baskets. Michigan finally prevailed, 55-47, to send them into a quarterfinal matchup against top-seeded Wisconsin Friday morning.

The second game of the day featured the Fighting Illini versus Penn State. The Illini had played the Nittany Lions twice this season, and had come up just short both times. This time, however, they got off to a strong start and actually took a double digit lead on more than one occasion. The three point shots were falling left and right, and, remarkably, so were the free throws. The Illini hit their first 7 attempts from the charity stripe, and led at the half, something that is not uncommon. In the second half, the Nittany Lions chipped away at the lead, and actually took the lead late in the game. Penn State has lost their two top scorers, and started 4 freshmen in the game against the Illini. The end of the game seemed eerily familiar, and one can only think of the movie 'Groundhog Day' to think how this game would end up. But, this time was different. With the Nittany Lions leading late in the game, the Illini inbounded the ball and found Chester Frazier underneath for the go ahead basket. Penn State couldn't get the last shot to fall, and the Illini escaped with a 64-63 victory. The win gets the Illini a date with second seeded Purdue Friday evening in the quarterfinals. The Boilermakers have defeated the Illini twice this season, so, can the Illini pull another rabbit out of their hat?

The first day's final game featured Minnesota and Northwestern, ad it appeared early the the Wildcats would run away with the lopsided victory. Northwestern led by as many as 15 in the first half, and held a sizable advantage at halftime. But, as has happened to Northwestern much of this season, they couldn't hold the lead and ended up losing to the Golden Gophers 55-52. Northwestern was in prime position to upset Minnesota, but finishing up the Big Ten season at 1-17, really don't know how to close a game out like that. So, Minnesota earns a berth in the quarterfinals against Indiana, who is in turmoil of their own. Talk has subsided a little about the Kelvin Sampson issue, but you can tell that it is still on a lot of minds of IU fans, and it is beginning to show in their style of play.

The first day ended with a gathering of media personnel at a watering hole in downtown Indianapolis. It seems strange to be face to face with personalities such as Barry Alvarez, Gene Keady, and Shon Morris, just to name a few. It was a veritable who's who of national media hanging out at one central location.

So, what will Day 2 of the Big Ten Tournament bring? Besides the games mentioned above, Michigan State and Ohio State have a rematch of their final regular season matchup. Regardless of how things end up, this is quite an atmosphere for basketball, and I hope that Indianapolis stays the host of the tournament for years to come.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Postseason Basketball: The Second Season

Clem Haskins couldn't do it. Dan Monson couldn't do it. So far, in two tries,Tubby Smith hasn't been able to accomplish it either. Of course, I'm talking about the Illini's dominance over Minnesota in men's basketball. The Illini have not lost to the Golden Gophers since the 1998-99 season, ironically the last season that they have been this low in the Big Ten standings. Nobody can explain the dominance that the Illini have enjoyed over Minnesota, but with the victory on Saturday, the streak has reached 19 games, the longest such streak of any team in the Big Ten Conference. It was Senior Day against the Gophers this time around, and the Illini once again prevailed, downing their visitors from Minnesota 67-58. Trent Meacham had the hot hand for the Illini, scoring a game high 21 points, while fellow junior Calvin Brock played a good game as well, scoring 17 points. This has been a season of frustration all around for the Illini, and once again, they led at halftime 27-26. However, this time, the Illini persevered down the stretch, and built up enough of a lead that even their atrocious free throw shooting couldn't throw that one away. On the afternoon, the Illini made 21 of 32 free throw attempts, which is a little better than their season average of 61%. It was nice to see the seniors go out with a win, especially the way this season has gone. Brian Randle's career has been one that has been injury-marred, and Shaun Pruitt has been plagued with attitude problems, as well as free throw issues that have cost the Illini a couple of games. He alluded to that effect after the game, addressing the crowd and apologizing for not being able to connect on three free throw sequences that could have won the game against Indiana. The other senior recognized on Saturday, Chris Hicks, has been a favorite of the Orange Krush, and saw a couple minutes of action, draining a long three-pointer as time expired. Hicks, whose attitude exceeds most that have donned the orange and blue over the years, probably will never play beyond the college level, but his contribution to the program the past 4 years has been a welcome addition.

So what's next for the Illini? The Big Ten Tournament begins on Thursday, and the Illini will be the #10 seed, playing Penn State at approximately 1:30 pm central time. The Illini have played Penn State twice this season, and lost to them both times. It is rather difficult to defeat a team three times in a season, and that is what the Illini are hoping for when they take the court against the Nittany Lions on Thursday. The rest of the matchups look like this: In the first game, #8 seed Iowa takes on #9 Michigan, with the winner of that game getting #1 Wisconsin on Friday. #4 seed Michigan State takes on #5 seed Ohio State in the second game on Friday, and the winner of the Illinois-Penn State game will face #2 seed Purdue in the first game on Friday night. #6 seed Minnesota will face #11 seed Northwestern in the final game on Thursday, with the winner of that game facing the #3 seed Indiana Hoosiers in the nightcap on Friday. Nobody knows what will happen in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, but this much is clear; the Illini will need to win 4 games in as many days if they want to be dancing a week from now on Selection Sunday.

When Jolette Law was hired as Fighting Illini women's basketball coach, she promised that one day they would be playing for national championships instead of Big Ten championships. In her first season at the helm, she has endured heartbreak after agonizing heartbreak, losing several games in the last minute of play. The Illini entered the tournament at 16-13 and the #9 seed, first taking on Wisconsin. They defeated the #8 seeded Badgers, and that win secured them a date with top-seeded Ohio State on Friday. Cinderella was dancing that night, as the Illini upended the Buckeyes to gain a spot in the semi-finals against the #5 seeded Michigan State Spartans. The Illini were able to get past the Spartans as well, to set up a championship showdown against the #3 seeded Purdue Boilermakers. The game went back and forth, with each team taking sizable leads, and, as fitting of a title game, came down to the last second. Unfortunately, for the Illini, the glass slipper finally didn't fit, and the Boilermakers put back a missed shot at the buzzer to defeat the Illini 58-56, and send the orange and blue clad fans that made the trip east returning home disappointed. But, you have to hand it to the ladies. They gave Illini Nation something exciting to cheer about for 4 days, and if Law keeps doing this, it could get very exciting in the near future for the women. The NCAA berth probably went by the wayside with the loss, but nevertheless, they proved that they are worthy and with a nucleus of players returning next season, will challenge for the regular season title ad hopefully, a deep run in the NCAA Tournament in 2009.

So, let the madness begin! Who do you think will be cutting the nets down in Indy next weekend? What are the prospects for the Big Ten in the big dance? Where, if anywhere, are the Illini headed in the postseason? I welcome your comments and suggestions!

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Welcome To March Madness

Yes, it's here, and enjoy the ride! I'm talking about March Madness, that annual event that has hoops junkies of all shapes and sizes keeping a close eye on basketball games. This year it is a little different, with the Fighting Illini men's team not having a very good season, and their postseason action takes on a much different role this year than in years past. For what seems like forever, the Illini would be entering the month of March trying to pad their tournament resume with a win or two in the Big Ten Tournament. This year, it is pure survival, as the Illini will need to run the table to be eligible for the 'Dance. This means 4 wins in 4 days, a feat that is nearly as impossible as Shaun Pruitt going 10-10 from the free throw line in a close game near the end of regulation. As in past years, the parity is getting narrower, so that teams that did not hold a prayer in the past can play with the big boys and pull the inevitable upset. The Big Ten is somewhat down this year, probably only looking at 4, or at best 5 teams in the tournament this year. The Illini do not figure to be one of them, as they enter the final week of the regular season at 12-17 overall and 4-12 in conference play. Illinois did get a nice win at Iowa on Saturday, 58-47, as Pruitt led the Illini in scoring with 18 points. Their last two road wins, the other one coming at Minnesota in February, have occurred when the young players have been in the game the majority of the time. With Brian Randle still nursing the shoulder injury and Pruitt not playing nearly as much as earlier in the season, the underclassmen have been getting a chance to show what they can do. One player in particular that has made some positive strides has been freshman Mike Davis. Davis has seen more playing time as of late, and is making the most of it. With Bill Cole out for the remainder of the year with an injury, as well as Richard Semrau, Davis has been called upon to shoulder the load. This can do nothing but help him, especially since the Illini really only lose Pruitt and Randle after this season. With only Stan Simpson entering the picture next year, expect to see more of Davis and hopefully in a leadership role as well.

The Illini finish up the regular season at the Assembly Hall against Michigan State (8:00 pm Thursday, ESPN2) and Minnesota (12:00 noon Saturday, Big Ten Network). This has been a strange season all around, with the Illini just 5-7 in front of the home fans. The Illini have a chance to even up their home record if they can get these last two games at home, and that would give them some momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament, which starts next week at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. More will be known by this weekend, when the seeds and brackets are finalized for the tournament. Whatever the outcome, the Illini need a serious run to make the field of 65 this year.

Jolette Law's Fighting Illini women's basketball team has completed their regular season, and are currently in the midst of their Big Ten Tournament, also being played at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Illini will enter play as the #9 seed in the tourney, coming in with an overall record of 16-13 overall and finishing 8-10 in Big Ten play. They will play the #8 seed Wisconsin Badgers, and if the Illini are lucky enough to get past the Badgers, will go up against top-seeded Ohio State on Friday evening. The Illini defeated the Buckeyes 68-64 back on January 31 at the Assembly Hall in Champaign. The Illini have lost several games at the very end, so their record is not indicative of how they have played. Jenna Smith was named to the first team All-Big Ten, while Lori Bjork garnered third team honors.