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.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Spring Sports Time!

Yes, it's been a while since I graced these pages, but the coming of spring and nicer weather have taken me outside and away from the keyboard of my laptop. In case you haven't been paying attention during the past month, Bill Self did indeed get the national championship that had been eluding him all these years. All I can say to that is, good for him. Now, let's move on with another topic, which involves both the men's and women's basketball teams at Illinois. It has been a rough go of it for both Bruce Weber and Jolette Law, as they have seen players leave their squads this month. On the men's side, junior Rodney Alexander will not return next season for the Illini, and Steve Holdren is getting his degree and is not planning on returning as well. With the losses of Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle to graduation, that leaves four vacancies on the roster for next season. Incoming freshman Stan Simpson and junior college transfer Dominique Keller will cut that number in half, but it leaves a void, especially down in the low post where Mike Tisdale will anchor next season. Jamar Smith returns from his suspension/redshirt season, and transfer Alex Legion will become eligible in December, giving the Illini a much better outside shooting tandem. Word has it that Brian Carlwell is still weighing his options about rejoining the team, but that remains to be seen if that will indeed happen.
On the women's side, the departure of Lori Bjork has left a gaping hole for Coach Law to fill. Bjork, who never saw eye to eye with Law since her arrival, plans to transfer, and it looks as if she may head east to Ball State, where former Illini assistant Marcia Frese went to coach. Also, freshman Chelsea Buher is leaving the team, most likely unhappy with the way playing time went for her as well. Add Danyel Crutcher to the list earlier in the season, and Law is playing with three less players. According to Law, getting the negative out of the program is tantamount to moving in the right direction. Upon Crutcher leaving, the Illini went on the Big Ten Tournament run and just missed the NCAA Tournament. Here's hoping that she is on track.
Last Saturday was the annual Spring game for the football team, coming off of their Rose Bowl appearance. In front of 12,ooo fans at a still-under-construction Memorial Stadium, the Illini faithful were treated to several spectacular plays. One in particular, a punt run back by Jerrod Fayson, electrified the crowd in attendance. Unfortunately for Fayson , he must sit out this coming season due to transfer rules. Fayson transferred from Florida last semester, and gave Illini fans a glimpse of what he can do. It appears that Juice Williams will be the starting quarterback when Camp Rantoul commences in August, but don't count out Eddie McGee just yet. Receiver Aurellious Benn was held out of contact, due to off-season shoulder surgery, and the Illini welcomed back Chris James, also recovering from an injury sustained last season. The future continues to look bright for Ron Zook and the football program, and with a challenging schedule for 2008, another bowl trip is certainly a possibility.
The Fighting Illini baseball team has endured what many northern schools go through each and every season, games either cancelled or postponed due to cold or wet weather. Just the pitfalls of living in the midwest, I guess. To date, the Illini have had 6 contests wiped out, and lately have gotten the most out of the nice spring weather that has graced Central Illinois. On Wednesday, the Illini played host to Western Illinois and defeated the Leathernecks 10-2 on a nice pitching outing by Nick Chmielewski. The Illini return to action this weekend to Illinois Field to face Penn State in a four-game series starting on Friday evening. Hopefully the rains will hold off so the Illini can get all or most of these games in. The Illini are 23-14 on the season.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Busted Brackets, Bucknell Bill, and Baseball?

Over the past couple of weeks, the NCAA Men's basketball tournament has taken on a different feel with no Illini involved. To go one step further, there was no single team from the Land of Lincoln in this year's tourney, which certainly limited the rooting interests of local fans. By now, I'm sure most of your brackets are trashed, as are mine, due to upstarts such as Davidson and Western Kentucky advancing much further than anyone anticipated. But, as we near the Final Four weekend, I do have a few observations about the 2008 tourney. (I have to do something, since the Illini didn't even qualify for the inaugural CBI tourney!). The first observation is that there were plenty of teams that Illini fans were hoping would lose, and lose early. Indiana, Tennessee, Memphis and Kansas are just a few that come to mind. The Hoosiers took care of that fairly early, as the train wreck in Bloomington created by Kelvin "don't call me, but I'll sure call you" Sampson just kept spiraling downward. Indiana resembled a badly sinking ship against Arkansas, and for Illinois fans anyway, they feel as if justice has been served with the whole Eric Gordon saga. The news gets progessively worse for the Hoosiers, as on Tuesday a story broke about current Hoosiers coach Dan Dakich kicking off two more players. You think to yourself, when will it end? Adding to the busted brackets talk, the showing of the Big Ten in the tournament. Which leads to my next observation; was the Big Ten as bad as everyone else in the country perceived it? Only 4 teams made the dance from the conference, and they all advanced beyond the first round, except for the aforementioned Indiana. Purdue scored 90 points in their first game, which proves that the league was good for one thing, and that was keeping scores low due to tight defense. In the Sweet 16 matchups, the two survivors of the conference, Wisconsin and Michigan State, couldn't hold it together. The Spartans played what could have been their worst half of basketball all season long, and the Badgers ran into the Davidson juggernaut that almost dethroned Kansas. Which leads me into.......

Bucknell Bill! The moniker given to Jayhawks coach Bill Self, for his early exit in the 2005 tourney to the Bison, finally can shed the title of "Best Coach To Never Make It To A Final Four", although it was anything but easy. As a matter of fact, it was downright gut-wrenching for the ex-Illini coach, who had dreams and visions of "having an office on Naismith Drive". Self and another former Illini coach, Lon Kruger, went head-to-head in the tournament, something that hadn't been done in a very long time. Seriously, I'm happy for Bill Self, because this year he had the talent to make the final four, but going up against top-seeded North Carolina will be a tall order. The news that broke on Tuesday about Oklahoma State coach Sean Sutton was fired, sending all kinds of speculation about the next coach in Stillwater. Self played there, and is an Oklahoma native. Hmmmmmm.

This blog wouldn't be complete without talking a little bit about Illini baseball. During the fall and winter, the grass surface was taken out at Illinois Field and replaced with an artificial turf, similar to what the football stadium has on it. Weather has played a major factor in getting the Illini on the home field, as they are set to get things underway on Wednesday. Next week, I will preview the baseball and softball teams, and catch everyone up on how the respective teams are doing.