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, January 29, 2009

Big Ten Race - One for the ages.

The 2008-09 edition of the Big Ten race is shaping up as one of the most entertaining in recent memory. Out of the 11 teams, 10 of them are legitimate contenders for a chance to hoist the trophy on Selection Sunday as the conference's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament (sorry, Indiana). Now, why did I single out the Hoosiers? Frankly, they are just not that good this season, Yes, they have come close to winning some game within the conference, but close just doesn't cut it in this league this season, and as of Wednesday, was 0-7 in Big Ten play. There have been some major surprises this year as well, namely the Fighting Illini. Last season, Illinois had one of their worst seasons in the last decade, and with all of the off-season drama that went on, wasn't expected to do much better this season. But, with a senior nucleus of Chester Frazier, Trent Mecaham, and Calvin Brock a year older and wiser to boot, they have rallied some of the younger players and have stormed out to a 5-2 mark in conference play as the mid-point of the race draws ever so closer. We all knew that Michigan State would be the cream of the crop again this year, and they have not disappointed, leading the Illini by a game. But what else has transpired within the conference has made many a sportswriter or casual fan just shake their heads. Wisconsin losing 5 Big Ten games in a row? Unthinkable! Northwestern defeating Michigan State at the Breslin Center? Preposturous! Michigan looking like world-beaters early on by defeating both Duke and UCLA, and now coming down to earth once they get into conference play? More common. It's been that kind of a year in the Big Ten, and it doesn't seem to be letting up any. Ohio State came in looking to be one of the front runners, but a couple of injuuries and a transfer has relegated the Buckeyes to middle-of-the-road status. Iowa, who have sat near the bottom of the conference the last few seasons, have improved a bit with their new coach Todd Lickliter, but still have a ways to go. Penn State, a scary team the past couple of years, may have turned the corner and looks poised to challenge for one of the top 5 seeds in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. Purdue is as talented as anyone in the conference, but a couple of key injuries to star players allowed the Illini to go into West Lafayette at the beginning of the conference season and steal a road victory. Minnesota, under Tubby Smith, is challenging for one of those spots as well, and they are the next opponent for the Illini (8:00 pm Thursday, Big Ten Network). What is unique about this series is that the Illini have won the last 20 meetings between the two schools, dating back to the 1999-2000 season. So, the last 4 coaches for the Golden Gophers have not been able to defeat the Illini. Not Dan Monson. Not Clem Haskins. Not Jim Molinari. And so far, Tubby Smith falls into this category. But, this is a different Minnesota team that we are dealing with these days, and it won't be easy. Nothing comes easy in the Big Ten these days. And yes, I believe that even Indiana will get a victory that they shouldn't. Teams need to be prepared to play night in and night out, because if they are not, then a loss is almost certain. Back to Northwestern and Michigan State for a moment. The Spartans have been almost unbeatable at the Breslin Center, and in the 300th game played there, they took on the feisty Wildcats, who had a wickedly successful shooting night. No game is a gimme anymore, and they all need to be earned. As Weber's philosophy states, take care of business at home and hope to steal one or two on the road, and you are in line for a conference title. Which is where the Illini find themselves right now. A win over Minnesota will allow them to keep pace with Michigan State, and will make the game between the Illini and the Spartans all the more important in Champaign when they play at the end of Februrary. The games have all been very enjoyable to watch thus far, and if this is any indication of how the Big Ten Tournament will be, then fans are in for a huge treat when all 11 teams converge on Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis in early March. The race is on!

Monday, January 19, 2009

A milestone win, no doubt.

Last week the Fighting Illini men's basketball team achieved a milestone that only 12 other programs have matched. The Illini notched win #1600, putting them in some elite company. Granted, the program has been around a long time, but you have to figure that all of those 20 win seasons during the Lou Henson era, coupled with the recent success of the program under the Lon Kruger, Bill $elf, and now Bruce Weber regimes, that number couldn't have been far off. The magic number came against the Michigan Wolverines, and was also at home in front of the fans, which, measured by the unexpected success of the 2008-09 season thus far, are finally seeing near capacity crowds again. This milestone is a big deal in many facets, namely the company that they now keep as a member of this exclusive club. The other 12 teams, in order of overall wins, are as follows: Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Duke, Syracuse, Temple, St. John's, UCLA, Pennsylvania, Notre Dame, Indiana and Utah. All good programs, and every one successful at once point over the last 20 years or so. Now back to this year's team. With the win over Michigan, the Illini hit the road to East Lansing hoping to sweep the Michigan teams for the week and finally crack the top 25 rankings for the first time in nearly 3 years. The trip to Spartan country was not successful, although the Illini led for nearly the entire game except the end, where it counts most. Michigan State, perenially the cream of the crop in the Big Ten Conference, has another stellar squad that looks like the team to beat in the league right now. It seems that when Tom Izzo is in a rebuilding year, it's almost like he reloads and they are good within a year. I have the utmost respect for Coach Izzo, and outside of Weber, is my favorite coach in the entire league. So, after the Illini went down to defeat 63-57 at the hands of the
Spartans on Saturday, the thought was that the Illini would be on the outside looking in once again when the new polls came out on Monday. However, to the amazement of many, including this blogger, the Illini cracked both polls, coming in at #25 in the AP poll and #24 in the USA Today/ESPN poll. This can be viewed in both good and bad terms, with the good being that finally the Illini are getting the respect that they deserve. This could also be bad in that now they have a target on their back and they cannot hide anymore. The Illini will get a chance to test their first ranking since the 2005-06 season on Tuesday evening when the welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to the Assembly Hall (6:00 pm central time, ESPN). Fans attending the game on Tuesday will be part of a unique setting, as since that day is the inaguration of Barack Obama as the 44th President of the United States of America, each person will be given an American flag to wave that will be quite a scene for the national television audience. Here's hoping that the Illini are up to the challenge and they don't let that ranking go to their heads. There is still an awfully lot of basketball to be played.
The Illini women's basketball team is enduring a nightmare of a season, one that Coach Jolette Law did not envision. With only 9 scholarship players on the roster, that is playing a major role in the disappointment. The women are just 4-15 on the season, and winless in 8 Big Ten games. It's not that they aren't getting good play from the people that they should be, it's just that they are not getting enough of it. Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson each notched double-doubles in a 61-43 loss to Wisconsin on Sunday evening in Madison, and Smith continues to play like an MVP candidate. It remains to be seen what the Illini would be without her. Coach Law takes her team into conference leader Ohio State on Thursday night with the hopes of any good news to turn this season around.
Finally this week, now that the changing of the guard has happened for University of Illini women's volleyball, a new coach has emerged, but he is not new to the program. Kevin Hambly, who has been an assistant under outgoing coach Don Hardin for a few years, steps into the top job with both feet in forward motion. Hambly is attending tournaments in the Chicagoland area and continues to have his eyes focused on bringing in new talent to a program that is on the upswing and figures not to lose much of anything with the coaching change. Hambly is also a very personable individual and seems capable of getting the job done.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

New year, new possibilities.

What a difference a year makes. At this time last year, the Fighting Illini men's basketball team was slogging through one of their worst seasons in nearly a decade. Several factors attribute to the reversal of fortunes. First of all, the players on this team are all a year older and more experienced. Guys like Demetri McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis have all seen their individual games stepped up a notch, while the elder players on the team, Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock have stepped into leadership roles. It could also be addition by subtraction. There were times last season when Brian Randle and Shawn Pruitt both did more harm than good, and frankly, I'm not sure where either of them would fit on this year's team. Last year's team played more on an individual level, and it showed on the floor, as communication and team effort just was not there. The problem was so dire that Bruce Weber decided at the beginning of the season to remove the names of the players off the backs of the uniforms, citing that they play for the name on the front of the jersey, not on the back. The tactic must be working, because this season the Illini have come out and are playing more as a team, more together cohesively. They have raced off to a 13-2 mark through the first 15 games, compared to 8-7 at the same jucture one year ago. As a matter of fact, the Illini did not get win number 13 until game 31 last season, which happened on March 8. So here we are, into the Big Ten season and the calendar has turned over to 2009, and Illinois has a road win at Purdue, and a game that maybe they should have won at Michigan, but still no Top 25 ranking. Maybe this is a good thing, because the players won't lose focus over being ranked. On the other hand, this is a team that deserves to be ranked, so the recognition needs to be there. Going into the first full week of conference play, one would have thought that a split would have meant a national ranking once and for all, but after the win at Purdue, the Illini were thinking sweep, and not just splitting the two. One really cannot explain why some teams get ranked and others don't, but I have to believe that last year somehow plays a part in it. Pollsters have taken a look at what the Illini did in 2007-08 and have concluded that this may be a fluke and that they will come back down to earth once the Big Ten season gets rolling. The Illini will look to get back on the winning track once again and make another push toward cracking the Top 25 this weekend when they take on a new look Indiana Hoosiers squad at the Assembly Hall on Saturday (2:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). Gone are Eric Gordon (NBA), Kelvin Sampson (coaching in the NBA), and a whole host of other players, leaving new mentor Tom Crean with a big mess and everything to play for, since expectations are very low for the Hoosiers this season. This will also be a good chance for the Illini to exact some revenge on Indiana for the past couple of seasons. And who knows, it might be the start of getting those names back on the jerseys.