The strain of a season full of expectations are finally starting to wear on Ron Zook, who is finding out that he might be more correct than he led on at the start of the season. The Fighting Illini are just 1 year removed from their Rose Bowl appearance, and after that game he mentioned that the team wasn't where they wanted to be yet. It's hard to tell the average Illini fan that, however. As I have said numerous times within the borders of this blog, Illini fans are a fickle group and the slightest teeter between the negative and the positive will usually cause wild fan comments. When things are going good, such as last year, then everyone is on top of the world and the talk of erecting a statue of Zook was a frequent topic. But, when things aren't going so well, then things get a little different. After a 55-13 dismantling of Indiana back on October 18, the Illini had regained some of that swagger that had eluded them much of this season. The Illini were poised to travel to Wisconsin and face a Badger team that had not won a game in the Big Ten this season. If ever there was a trap game, this was it. The Illini fell behind early, but found the endzone at the start of the second quarter as Juice Williams hit Zach Becker, a freshman backup fullback from St. Joseph-Ogden for his first collegiate touchdown. Watching Zach come through the ranks for the Spartans gave me a lot of pride to see him finally catch his first pass of his career, much less it be for a score. However, the Illini couldn't stay out of their own way as penalties and turnovers once again proved to be the deciding factor as the Illini dropped to 2-3 in the Big Ten and 4-4 overall. If ever there was a must win for Zook and his Illinois team, it is this Saturday, when the Iowa Hawkeyes come to town for a visit (2:30 pm central time, ABC). A footnote regarding television for the game; those fans out of the Big Ten market will be able to see the game on ESPN. Iowa is one of those teams that is hard to figure out. They come in at 5-3 overall and 2-2 in league lay, and feature one of the better running backs in the conference in Shonn Greene. The Hawkeyes were on a bye last week, and haven't played since they beat Wisconsin 38-16 back on October 18. For the Illini to retain any hopes of getting a bowl bid, this game must go in the win column. That pretty much sums it up.
The curtain will rise on the 2008-09 Fighting Illini men's basketball team this coming Sunday afternoon when they host Florida Southern in an exhibition game at the Assembly Hall. The Illini will be young, and starting the season a little short-handed at guard play. The three seniors, Trent Meacham, Chester Frazier, and Calvin Brock will provide the leadership that will be sorely needed. The Illini had planned on having Jamar Smith back for another season, but you all know the story and how that particular chapter ended, so I won't go into any more detail on it. There are only two juniors on the team this year, juco transfer Dominique Keller and the ever re-appearing C. J. Jackson, who is done with football and wants to come back and give basketball another try. Keller, who hails from Texas, should give the Illini some depth down in the post. Jackson is a bruiser that may or may not factor in to the mix, given his fluctuating back and forth between sports. The conditioning will be undoubetedly the most difficult for Jackson, and we shall see how he handles all of it early on in the season. For sophomores, the Illini are absolutely loaded, as seven players dot the roster from that class. Mike Tisdale leads this group of upcoming stars, and will be expected to contribute to the void left by Shaun Pruitt, who graduated last year. Guard Demetri McCamey will need to keep his shooting skills in tact, because he will be one of the top guns early on. Mike Davis and Richard Semrau will also be expected to add some depth to the front line. Semrau, who has battled injuries and illness during his time as an Illini, seems to have put on some weight and is ready for the season to begin. Davis can be a wild card, and has good leaping ability for a 6'9 player. Bill Cole, who played sparingly as freshman, will also be asked to spell some of the post players. Jeff Jordan, who had some good moments last season, can also be that type of player who can come in and give McCamey and Meacham some needed rest. The final sophomore, Alex Legion, is the transfer from Kentucky, and must sit out the first part of the season as part of NCAA rules. He will become eligible in December after fall finals end. Legion could be that key that sparks the Illini once the Big Ten season begins. In summer workouts before the Smith debacle, Legion and Smith were the two best shooters on the team. The hard part here will be to keep Alex focused when it finally is his turn. The lone freshman on the team is Stan Simpson, a gangly 6'9 center, who may or may not be a factor this season. Nobody intends to redshirt at the start of a season, and according to Coach Bruce Weber, it is always ultimately up to the player to make that final decision. Whether or not Simpson decides to make that choice is anybody's guess right now, but if he doesn't and chooses to play, look for him to give Tisdale some much needed rest.
Now, looking at this roster, you really don't see an NCAA Tournament team, do you? This team could very well surprise some people, but it will be in the non-conference portion of the season where we will really see what this team is all about. A tough road contest at Vanderbilt, a United Center matchup with Georgia, and the Big 10/ACC Challenge game at home against Clemson will be three games that will tell a lot of this story. However the season plays out, one thing is clear. The 2009 recruits are on the way, and if they are as advertised, things could get fun again at the Assembly Hall. Illini fans just have to exhibit a little patience. No, really, I mean it.
Next week, I will preview the women's basketball outlook for the 2008-09 season, as well as get everyone caught up to speed on the fall sports scene on campus, and whether or not the Illini were able to get past Iowa and if their bowl hopes are still floating, or are flushed down the drain.