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.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Basketball season in full force

Let's face it, this is a pretty good basketball team that Bruce Weber has assembled this season. Gone are some of the distractions (Jamar Smith), and team unity is once again making it's presence known. Maybe it had something to do with Weber's decision to remove the names from the backs of the jerseys, claiming that you play for the name on the front, and not on the back. Whatever the reason, the Illini are 9-1 and just a shot away from a perfect 10-0 record. Call it "The Shot Not Taken" if you wish, but the Clemson game right now is the only thing standing in their way. And, the news is about to get even better for Weber and the Illini, as Alex Legion becomes eligible for Saturday's game against Detroit Mercy (7:00 pm, Big Ten Network). Legion, who has been idle since last December when he transferred in from Kentucky, will look to give the Illini another weapon shooting the basketball. But don't go expecting miracles immediately for Legion. He has had quite a journey since his high school days in Michigan. He attended prestigious Oak Hill Academy his senior season before enrolling at Kentucky, where he only played a handful of games before leaving the program. The departure of Jerrance Howard from Lexington had as much of an impact on Legion leaving as anyone did. Howard, who basically switched positions with Tracy Webster (although it wasn't like that at all), came to Illinois, and Legion soon wanted to follow. Weber had recruited him pretty aggressively, but didn't get him initially. Then, when he wanted to commit to Weber when he left the Wildcats, Weber essentially told him to come check it out before making a decision. So, to make a long story short, you will be seeing #33 entering the lineup (hopefully, if all of the grades and the like get posted) on Saturday night when the Illini seek their 10th win of the season.
Illini women's basketball coach Jolette Law has been enduring an up and down 2008 season so far, with 3 early wins that was followed up by a six game losing streak. The Illini get a taste of the best of the best on Saturday afternoon when they travel down to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina to face the second ranked North Carolina Tar Heels. Then, it is on to the Big Ten portion of the season when the Illini host Purdue on Monday night at the Assembly Hall. Law has maintained her belief that you get to be the best by playing the best, and she relishes this opportunity to go against one of the best teams in the entire country. With only 9 scholarship players this season, depth is obviously an issue, and that could be part of the problem with the early season losses. Still, you should not be losing to teams like Montana and South Dakota State, and that is something that Law hopes to change. Working with the players and changing some things with the game plan may be the driving force for the Illini as they enter Big Ten play.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Big 10/ACC Challenge - Must See Tv, or Mismatch?

I thought I would deviate from the normal format of this blog and concentrate on a central topic this week. With the football team ending their season prematurely, and basketball season just beginning for both the men and women, only the volleyball team is playing games that mean a whole lot right now. More on them later.
The Big 10/ACC Challenge turns 10 this week, and so far in this series, it has been a landslide in favor of the ACC. With teams like North Carolina, Duke and Wake Forest perennially challenging for national titles, the Big Ten has been getting whitewashed in the previous 9 events. The Illini have not fared very well in the challenge either, winning only 3 of the 9 games. So, what seems to be the problem, you say? Personally, I just think the ACC breeds better basketball, hands down. They have the better coaches, guys like Roy Williams, Mike Krzyzewski, among others, and have more exposure than the Big Ten. When you compare apples to apples, the ACC most always will win any argument between the two conferences. Now, the Big Ten has some good coaches, namely Tom Izzo and Bo Ryan, plus some that are up and coming, such as Bruce Weber, Thad Matta, and Tom Crean. But, the ACC continually gets the better talent, and they recruit more nationally than the Big Ten does. Sure, the Big Ten Network debuted a year ago to give fans in other areas a chance to see the conference, but the ACC has had their own network for many years, the sports giant known as ESPN. Guys like Dick Vitale and Dave Barnett spouting off at the mouth about the Tar Heels or the beloved Dukies gets old real fast. But, who can blame them? With as much exposure as they get, who wouldn't think they were far superior? This year vowed to be different, right? Well......., not so fast. With the train wreck happening at Indiana, and rebuilding projects at Iowa and Michigan, the Big Ten figured to be behind the eight ball once again. The Illini gave it their best shot on Tuesday night, coming within a final shot of defeating Clemson. Even though the Illini lost the game, some positives can be drawn from it. To be frank, this Illini team wasn't supposed to do much this season, so starting out at 6-0 left some to doubt if what they were seeing was real. The result was a 76-74 loss, as the Illini couldn't get the last shot off in regulation, and even though the crowd left disappointed at the first loss of the season, it is only the first loss and this team can build on that. With only 3 games and counting until the debut of Alex Legion, the Illini hope that another outside shooter can propel them into the Big Ten season.
Now, back to the challenge issue. The Illini are beginning to recruit more on a national level, and the addition of Mike Davis from Virginia (ACC territory, by the way) is a welcome start. At the Clemson game on Tuesday night, someone asked coach Oliver Purnell if he tried to recruit Davis while in high school. Purnell said he did, but since Davis was planning on going the prep school way, some coaches turned him off of their radar screens. It was Weber that convinced Davis to come to Illinois, where he could possible play right away. So far, so good on the result, as Davis has been a monster for the Illini, and an integral part of the team's 6-1 start.
Will the Big Ten ever win of these challenges? The jury remains out on that one, but for 2008, the Big Ten got closer. losing the 10th annual event by a 6-5 margin. Yes, the Big Ten could have taken their first challenge if the Illini could have gotten that final shot off (and made it). But, blowout losses by Michigan State to North Carolina and Indiana to Wake Forest make the answer to this question abundantly clear. The ACC is still superior to the Big Ten, and things will not change unless the brand of basketball that is played on the prairie matches that of the style that takes place on Tobacco Road.
Don Hardin announced his retirement this week as coach of the Illinois women's volleyball team, a position that he had held at Illinois for the past 13 seasons. Hardin has brought a level of talent to the program that has seen 9 trips to the NCAA Tournament, including the Final Four in 1987. Hardin wanted to imply that he is not leaving because he has to, he just wants to focus on teaching as the next phase of his career path. Having been given the opportunity to know Coach Hardin over the past few years, he is a superb individual that will be greatly missed within the Illinois program. The 2008 squad received an invitation to the NCAA Tournament, and will actually host first and second round matches on Friday and Saturday evening. The Illini, who finished the regular season at 24-7, received a #9 seed and will take on Wisconsin-Milwaukee, while Cincinnati and Western Kentucky will square off in the other match, with the winners facing each other on Saturday for the right to move on to the Sweet Sixteen. Let's hope that Coach Hardin can take this team deep into the tourney and extend what has been a brilliant coaching career.