The crossover season in sports is heaven to the sports fan of any age. At the University of Illinois, that time has come, and if you are any kind of a sports fan that follows the Illini, then last weekend was your Mecca. Starting off with earlier in the week, fall signing day for both basketball teams and the volleyball teams arrived, and Bruce Weber and Jolette Law both made quite a splash with announcing their 2009 classes. On the men's side, four players were signed, and the talent level of these guys may be just what the Illini need to get back to the NCAA Tournament. Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, D. J. Richardson, and Tyler Griffey are coming into a program at just the right time. Beset by defections and graduation, Weber and the Illini need some positive reinforcement to take place within the program. Paul, a 6'3 guard from Warren High School in Gurnee, can move up and down the court much like Richardson, also a 6'3 guard from the basketball factory of Peoria, Illinois. However, Richardson is away at prep school in Henderson, Nevada this season to concentrate on academics before enrolling at Illinois. Bertrand, a 6'5 guard from Sterling, is the reigning Class 3A slam dunk champion in the state, and may be versatile at either the 2 or the 3 position. Griffey, the lone out-of-stater from Wildwood, Missouri, is a 6'9 forward that has had the Illini on his radar for several years. His high school coach also coached former Illini Robert Archibald, giving instant credibility to the program. On the court, the Illini opened up the season with a pair of wins, defeating Eastern Washington 66-50 and Texas A & M - Corpus Christi 72-53, both at the Assembly Hall. In the win over TAMCC, sophomore Mike Davis showed some potential, recording a double double, scoring 20 points and grabbing 14 rebounds in the win. Things get a bit tougher for Weber and his young team when they travel to Nashville, Tennessee for their first road game on Thursday night against Vanderbilt (7:00 pm CT, Fox Sports Midwest). The Commodores are coached by Kevin Stallings, who is a close and personal friend of Weber's from their days at Purdue.
Illinois women's basketball coach Jolette Law was also busy on signing day, inking six players to letters of intent. Those players are as follows: Adrienne GodBold (Marshall HS, Chicago, Ill.), Brianna Jones (Central Catholic HS, Toledo, Ohio), Kersten Magrum (Lincoln-Way East HS, Frankfort, Ill.), Amber Moore (Country Day HS, Detroit, Mich.), Karisma Penn (Shaker Heights HS, Shaker Heights, Ohio) and Destiny Williams (Benton Harbor HS, Benton Harbor, Mich). This class has been ranked #2 nationally, meaning that Law is trying to make good on her promise to put Illinois women's basketball on the national map and bring a championship to Champaign. The Illini women have also begun their season, and so far, things are looking pretty good. A win last Friday against Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne 64-44, and a home win against Eastern Illinois 49-45 last Sunday ahead of the men's game, is just the way Law wanted to start things out. With only 9 scholarship players, minutes are up for grabs and a total team effort needs to occur each night out for continued success. The Illini will battle Missouri at the Assembly Hall on Wednesday night (8:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) to try and keep up the favorable start to the new season.
It has come down to this for Ron Zook and his Illini football team. Win and become bowl eligible, or lose and watch other teams battle in bowls for the upcoming holiday season. The Illini couldn't get it done last Saturday, falling to Ohio State 30-20 for Senior Day at Memorial Stadium. This has not been the season that these seniors envisioned at the start of the season. Fresh off a Rose Bowl appearance, the Illini wanted to improve on their 8-4 record and possibly play another meaningful bowl game. Instead, the Illini find themselves literally against the wall, needing a win against Northwestern (2:30 pm CT, Big Ten Network) on Saturday to get that all-important sixth win that will make them bowl eligible. Now, getting a win on Saturday doesn't mean that the Illini will get a bowl bid. Based on attendance figures, the Illini would be a better choice than some 7-5 teams, such as, ironically, Northwestern. But, how do you choose a 6-6 team (assuming Illinois wins) over a 7-5 team? Not an easy task at all. Northwestern will be up for this game, as they always are when facing their in-state rival. The main knock on Zook as of late has been his coaching ability in key situations. The removal of Juice Williams against the Buckeyes was more or less just a wake-up call, and you will see #7 behind center when the Illini take the field against the Wildcats on Saturday. When Zook was at Florida, he was known as a great recruiter, but not a good game coach. Similar patterns are beginning to develop during his tenure at Illinois as well. Zook continues to bring in top level players, but with as much talent that is on this team now, you would think that consecutive winning seasons would be in order. This has caused concern that some of the recruits that have given soft verbals may be wanting to reconsider and re-open their options. Failure to secure these prospective recruits could signal an alarming message to the program. Then again, these players could see this as a positive in knowing that the team needs help and they could step right in and play immediately. Losing Brit Miller, Ryan McDonald, Xavier Fulton and David Lindquist will no doubt hurt, and rumors are abound that junior cornerback Vontae Davis is going to skip his senior year to enter the NFL draft. However this plays out, the Illini need this win on Saturday to restore some credibility to the program because it has been awhile, a long while, since Illinois made consecutive bowl appearances.
Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team has been moving through the NCAA Tournament this past week, and have advanced to the round of 16, putting them in some pretty select company. The Illini will travel to Chapel Hill, North Carolina on Saturday to face the North Carolina Tar Heels, who have been the face of success in collegiate soccer over the past two decades. Rayfield is no stranger to the Tar Heels, having played there and helped them to their first national title back in 1982. This is the third appearance in the Sweet 16 for the Illini in the last five years, all in the Rayfield tenure. Tall order may it be, the fact remains that the Illini are poised to keep their season going, no matter what it takes.
Finally, volleyball was also in action this past week, and like the basketball teams, they signed some more talent as well for 2009. 6-1 outside hitter Jessica Jendryk (Wheaton, Ill./Benet Academy) , 6-3 middle blocker Erin Johnson (Crystal Lake, Ill./Crystal Lake South) , and 5-9 setter Jackie Wolfe (Wheaton, Ill./Wheaton-Warrenville South H.S.) will join Don Hardin's squad next year, and will add to some pretty stellar talent already in place. On the court, the Illini dropped a match to top-ranked Penn State last Friday night, and came back with wins over Indiana at Huff Hall, and Purdue on the road. In the match against the Nittany Lions, Penn State won in three games, and what is more impressive is that they have not lost a single game this season. The Illini will wrap up their regular season this weekend when they host Michigan State for senior night.
Is that enough sports for ya? This is only one week's worth, which means they'll be more this week, and the next, and.......