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.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Looking Ahead to March Madness

Here we are, just 3 weeks before Selection Sunday, and the Big Ten race is as tight as it can be, with 3 teams still with a viable shot at the title, and several others within striking distance. What follows is a synopsis of all 11 teams, in order of standings as of Sunday evening, with prognosis for the remainder of the season.

1. Michigan State Spartans (21-5 overall, 11-3 Big Ten) - The Spartans have pretty much been in control all season long, and even though they have lost 2 games at the Breslin Center (Penn State and Northwestern), they still look like the frontrunners to win the league title. Led by sophomores Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers, the Spartans can come at you in a variety of ways. They are superbly coached as well, with Coach Tom Izzo being one of the best coaches in the league, if not the entire country. Coming down the stretch, the Big Ten title could very well be decided on the last day of the regular season, when the Spartans meet Purdue up at East Lansing.

Games Remaining: 4 (Iowa, at Illinois, at Indiana, Purdue)

2. Purdue Boilermakers (21-6 overall, 10-4 Big Ten) - The Boilermakers have stayed near the top of the league standings as well this season, and even though they have lost to the Illini twice during the regular season, still have managed to keep pace. With several players out with injuries at one time or another (Robbie Hummel, Chris Kramer, Lewis Jackson), the Boilermakers are still a little banged up, but with stellar play from JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore, they are poised for an end of the season showdown with Michigan State. Coach Matt Painter has done an exceptional job, and the lineage of the Boilermaker coaching tree has never been more evident by his style on the sidelines. Purdue won the first meeting with the Spartans in West Lafayette to draw ever closer to the top of the conference standings.

Games Remaining: 4 (at Michigan, Ohio State, Northwestern, at Michigan State)

3. Illinois Fighting Illini (22-6 overall, 10-5 Big Ten) - After the disaster that was last season (16-19 overall), the Illini were expected to not do very much this season, in which they deemed a rebuilding year with a bumper crop recruiting class coming in for the 2009 season. But, the Illini have exceeded expectations and are contending with Purdue and Michigan State for the conference title. Sure, they have had some bad and ugly losses (Minnesota 59-36, Penn State 38-33), but they have also had some impressive road wins as well. Coach Bruce Weber somehow finds a way to motivate his players, and at the beginning of the season, had the names of the players removed from the jerseys as an act of unification. Well, it must have worked, because the Illini are destined for the NCAA Tournament and a top 3 seeding in the conference tournament with a group that is not much different than last season. With the Jamar Smith incident firmly behind them now, the distractions that plagued them last season are a memory and they can focus on winning, which they have been doing a lot of this season.

Games remaining: 3 (Minnesota, Michigan State, at Penn State)

4. Penn State Nittany Lions (19-8 overall, 8-6 Big Ten) - Perhaps the surprise of the Big Ten this season, Coach Ed DeChellis has his team playing well, and with big wins at Michigan State and Illinois, has firmly entrenched the Lions in the upper half of the conference standings. Led by sophomore point guard Talor Battle and senior Jermelle Cornley, they can sneak up on teams, which they have done quite a bit of this season. Barring a late season collapse, the Nittany Lions figure to secure an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and will be a dangerous team to face in the Big Ten Tourney next month.

Games remianing: 4 (at Ohio State, Indiana, Illinois, at Iowa)

5. Minnesota Golden Gophers (20-7 overall, 8-7 Big Ten) - Now is where the fun starts in the standings. The Gophers are one of about 4 teams that are fighting for that ever elusive fifth seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which gives that team a first round bye. Minnesota has kept pace in the middle of the pack for most of the season, but they are a streaky team that is hard to figure out. Led by the outside shooting of Lawrence Westbrook and Blake Hoffarber (who could forget his last second shot to beat Indiana in last year's Big Ten Tournament), Coach Tubby Smith has Minnesota poised to return to the NCAA Tournament after a lengthy hiatus. How they do down the stretch will determine their fate come conference tournament time.

Games remaining: 3 (at Illinois, Wisconsin, Michigan)

6. Wisconsin Badgers (17-10 overall, 8-7 Big Ten) - The Badgers have been hard to figure out all season, and earlier in the year, were pretty much written off when they went on a 6 game losing streak in conference play. They have since gotten their act together and are competing for one of the top 5 seeds in the Big Ten Tournament. Wisconsin has always been known for their big, bruising centers and forwards, and those types of players seem to be lacking this season. Instead, the Badgers rely on senior leadership from Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry, as well as junior Trevon Hughes. Coach Bo Ryan, feisty as he is on the sidelines, still has done a commendable job in getting the Badgers back in contention for the upper half of the standings. Have a decent shot of finishing over .500 in Big Ten play with a soft schedule down the stretch.

Games remaining: 3 (Michigan, at Minnesota, Indiana)

7. Ohio State Buckeyes (17-8 overall, 7-7 Big Ten) - Another team in the logjam that is pretty difficult to figure out. The Buckeyes have dealt with some adversity this season, losing one player to injury (David Lighty), and another transferring out (Anthony Crater). Still, Coach Thad Matta has the Buckeyes still within reach of a top 5 seed in the conference tournament despite those hardships. The Buckeyes are led by Evan Turner, who could very well end up as the Big Ten player of the year. Throw B. J. Mullens in there as a shot blocker, and you have a formidable duo down the stretch that could cause some problems for teams that may overlook them. The loss to Illinois on Sunday may have done more harm then good, and very well may have cost them an NCAA Tournament berth. Still too early to tell, though, but they can make a statement down the stretch with a good showing.

Games remaining: 4 (Penn State, at Purdue, at Iowa, Northwestern)

8. Michigan Wolverines (17-11 overall, 7-8 Big Ten) - The Wolverines fall into that category of teams that are just impossible to figure out. In the non-conference portion of the schedule, they did very well, defeating Duke and UCLA, and coming very close to knocking off Connecticut as well. But, in the conference games, they have been good at home, and not such on the road. Michigan is young, with only 3 seniors (C.J. Lee, David Merritt, and Jevohn Shepherd), but it has been the play on the court that has been the focal point for them. Manny Harris and Zack Novak have both served suspensions for flagrant fouls of opponents, and even though Coach John Beilein has a young nucleus of players to work with, that may not be enough to take the Wolverines back to the NCAA Tournament, somewhere they have not been for nearly a decade. The remainder of the Big Ten schedule isn't kind to them either.

Games remaining: 3 (Purdue, at Wisconsin, at Minnesota)

9. Northwestern Wildcats (14-11 overall, 5-9 Big Ten) - Long a perennial cellar dweller in the Big Ten, the Wildcats have opened some eyes this season with wins at Michigan State, and near miss against Illinois (a 60-59 loss), but will probably yet again finish in the bottom 3, unless they can turn the corner in a hurry. Coach Bill Carmody wanted to be the coach to give the Wildcats their first ever NCAA Tournament bid, but the only way that is going to happen is if they can somehow get hot and win the Big Ten Tournament. Kevin Coble and Craig Moore continue to make it happen for Northwestern, while Michael Thompson and newcomer Luka Mirkovic have given glory to those in Evanston looking for a bright spot. My guess is they will still be searching once the bids are announced.

Games remaining: 4 (at Indiana, Iowa, at Purdue, at Ohio State)

10. Iowa Hawkeyes (14-13 overall, 4-10 Big Ten) - Another team whose fate has been sealed by injury. Perhaps their best player, Cyrus Tate, went down early in the Big Ten season with an injury, and they have not been the same team ever since. And to add insult to more injury, Jeff Peterson is also currently out of commission, leaving guys like Devan Bawinkel, Matt Gatens, and Jarryd Cole to shoulder the load. Coach Todd Lickliter shows promise as coach, but until he can put a team on the floor at full strength, they will be playing in the tournament with 3 letters, instead of the one with 4 in it.

Games remaining: 4 (at Michigan State, at Northwestern, Ohio State, Penn State)

11. Indiana Hoosiers (6-20 overall, 1-13 Big Ten) - Not even sure where to begin discussing the Hoosiers. Everyone knew that this would be happening after the explosion in Bloomington last season. Amid the recruiting violations by then coach Kelvin Sampson that led to several players transferring, Indiana basically had to start from scratch to build another team. The person that was chosen to lead that charge was Tom Crean, who had been at Marquette and was a former assistant of Tom Izzo's at Michigan State. Crean knew what he was getting into, and it has been far from easy for the cream and crimson. They show a lot of promise, with young stars such as Verdell Jones III, Matt Roth and Devan Dumes, but they are just not experienced enough to contend with the stalwarts of the Big Ten. Their day will come, but for now, teams can enjoy beating up on the Hoosiers because as Crean has shown everywhere he has been, he can coach. Hoosier fans can take comfort in knowing where they will begin the Big Ten Tournament next month, which is firmly entrenched as the 11th seed.

Games remaining: 4 (Northwestern, at Penn State, Michigan State, at Wisconsin)

As always, I welcome your comments.

Friday, February 13, 2009

Chicago - An Illini kind of town?

Those of you that switched off of the Illinois-Northwestern game on Thursday night, don't feel bad admitting to the fact. I almost did too, but for some reason, I stayed with it and saw perhaps the greatest Illini comeback since "The Comeback", which of course was the Illinois-Arizona game back on March 26, 2005 that sent the Illini to their first Final Four since 1989. Sure, the game against Northwestern didn't have near the implications that the Arizona game did, but there are still some pretty curious coincidences associated with the two games. First of all, they both took place in the Chicagoland area. The game against Arizona was at Allstate Arena in suburban Rosemont, while Northwestern's game was at Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, a burb on the north side of the city. To further dive into the similarities of the two games, ironically they both involved teams that have Wildcats as their mascots. Coincidence? Definitely. In both games, the Illini had to claw (no pun intended) their way back from double digit deficits, and did so in the waning minutes of regulation. The only glaring difference between the two games was that the Arizona game went overtime, and the Illini prevailed 90-89 to advance to St. Louis. In the game against Northwestern, no extra period was needed, as the Illini won 60-59. Another glaring difference was the personnel involved in the comeback. In 2005, the Illini boasted a starting five that all saw time in the NBA at one point or another (Dee Brown,. Deron Williams, Roger Powell, Luther Head, and James Augustine). The 2009 version is not nearly as glamorous (Trent Meacham, Demetri McCamey, Chester Frazier, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale), but proved to be equally effective. The win on Thursday night exemplifies one thing about this year's Illini team; they somehow find a way to win when they need to. The road in the Big Ten has not been kind to Bruce Weber and his team this season, as they have looked bad at times, and downright pitiful in other instances. Thursday night's game fit into the pitiful category for nearly 35 minutes, as the Illini forgot free throw technique, missing 10 out of 12 attempts on the night. Shooting was equally bad, and until the 5 minute mark of the second half, was really struggling from all points on the floor. Unlike 2005, the current Illini squad was not top-ranked, but they are in the Top 20, and with a win over Indiana on Sunday (12:00 noon, CST, CBS), figure to move up in the rankings once again. The Illini captured win number 20 against Northwesterm against 5 defeats, and have stayed within shouting distance of first place Michigan State at 8-4 in the conference standings. As I've stated before, it's been that kind of a season in the Big Ten Conference, with any team capable of knocking someone off every game. I feel bad for Northwestern, because this is a game that they should have won, and the loss may in fact destroy their chances of making the field of 65 teams for the first time in school history. Coach Bill Carmody has the Wildcats playing really well, and they are no longer a team that you overlook when they pop up on the schedule. Barring a late season collapse, they look like a strong candidate for the NIT, and who knows, with a little luck and a few more wins, could make things interesting in the Big Ten Tournament. I just hope that Illinois doesn't have to face them early in Indianapolis, because on a neutral court, all bets are off.
The level of play in the Big Ten has been intense this season, but so have the flagrant fouls and cheap shots. Already this season, there have been two players from Michigan suspended (Mannie Harris and Zach Novak), one from Indiana (Devan Dumas), and probably should have been one more, in Wisconsin's Joe Krabbenhoft for his outlandish pick on Purdue's Lewis Jackson. (Lew Jack missed the next game as a result.) Kudos to the respective coaches of these teams for stepping up and taking matters into consideration, but one tends to wonder how much is enough? The Big Ten has always been known as a physical league, with past bruisers such as Brian Cardinal, Lucas Johnson, and Brian Butch, just to name a few. But one of these times, someone is going to get seriously hurt, and then when the league doesn't step in to curtail this activity, it will give others the idea to do something similar. But as we get down to the stretch run for conference supremacy, a good number of teams still have a legitimate shot at the title. It would be tragic to see a team's hopes dashed by a careless and unnecessary play, taking one of their players out of commission. But, that's for the league to decide.