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, March 12, 2009

Big Ten Tournament Musings - Day 1

The 2009 Big Ten Tournament is underway from Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and judging from the way the crowd looks, it will be a down year for attendance. Not sure if the economy has an impact on that or what. The city of Indianapolis continues to be a great host for this event, and the fans that are here seem to enjoy the atmosphere as well. The games today have not been as entertaining as expected, but nevertheless, they have gone like most people thought they would.

In the first game of the day, the Minnesota Golden Gophers withstood a pesky bunch of Wildcats from Northwestern to outlast them 66-53. It looked as if the Wildcats were in the game to stay, especially in the first half, as Kevin Coble scored 19 of his team's 25 points at the break. The Gophers pulled away early in the second half, only to see the Wildcats come storming back to tie the game, then take the lead midway through the final stanza. In that second half, Ralph Sampson III took over for Minnesota, and in the process, derailed what faint hopes Northwestern had of earning an NCAA bid. The Wildcats looked pretty good, as they had all season long, but just couldn't quite get over the hump against a talented Minnesota squad. Even though Northwestern deserves an NCAA berth, they won't get one because their record simply isn't good enough.

The second game of the day had major implications on the Fighting Illini, because the winner was who the Illini would face in their first game of the tourney on Friday. Illinois had beaten both teams already this season, and only played Iowa once. The game started off with a Michigan flurry, and pretty much stayed that way the entire time. Michigan, who took a 40-19 lead at the half, put it on cruise control in the second half and walloped the hapless Hawkeyes 73-45 in a game that never was close. DeShawn Sims scored 27 points for Michigan, and had their first 14 points of the game. Iowa never had an answer for him the entire game, and it showed in the final tally. It seems as if Iowa's previous coach, Steve Alford, ran down that program worse than anyone imagined and the main question now is whether or not Todd Lickliter, the Hawkeyes' current coach, has enough time to fix it. He has some talent, just not enough of it yet.

The third and final game of the opening day featured Penn State and Indiana, who were the doormats of the Big Ten this season. Illini fans know full well about the Nittany Lions, so I won't go into detail about them, but Indiana is a team that has struggled on many levels this season. Granted, new coach Tom Cream wasn't left with much under the Sampson scandal, but at least they have tried this season. Sitting at my seat on press row right behind the Indiana bench, it is fun to watch Crean in action. His motions say enough about the season that they are having. The Nittany Lions took a 38-25 lead into the locker room at halftime, and came out in the second half shooting gangbusters and put to the hurts to the Hoosiers 66 to 51. Not much went right for Indiana in this game, although the Champaign product Verdell Jones III had a good game, scoring 23 points. However, the Nittany Lions' Jermelle Cornley had a good game of his own, scoring 22 points on the night. Rest in peace, IU, there's always next year. As for the Nittany Lions, they live on to play another day and take one more step closer to an NCAA Tournament bid of their own.

Which brings us to the task at hand, which is the Illini's next game. Knowing they had a first round bye this year, they could focus their attention on the Michigan-Iowa game, because they would be taking on the winner of that game. But, some breaking news has developed in the Illinois camp concerning Chester Frazier. Apparently Frazier sustained a hand injury on Wednesday in practice, and the news isn't good at all. He may be out for the remainder of the tournament, as he is currently listed as doubtful. This is a huge blow to the Illini, because Fraizer is known for his defense and even though he doesn't score a whole lot, he manages to be a good floor leader and getting other players open shots. The Wolverines like to run and gun, and the loss of Frazier could play into their hands to make this a track meet, something the Illini do not want to do. But, you play the hand that you are dealt, and we will soon see what kind of a gambler Bruce Weber is.

More follows on Friday for day 2 of the tourney.

Monday, March 9, 2009

It's March: Indy or Chicago?

March Madness. Those two little words mean so much to so many people. For some, it's the signal of spring and a breaking out of the doldrums of winter. For others, it is the sign of Spring Break and a chance to get away from everything. Still others think of these two words as the greatest three weeks in all of the sporting year. Yes, folks, it's that time again, when the "experts" get together and pick the 65 teams that are fortunate enough to make the field, otherwise known as the "Big Dance". In years past, selection has been pretty much obvious for many of the teams, but this year in particular the bar has been raised. There is parity this year like in no other previous year, and the committee may have a difficult time on their hands determining which teams get in and which ones are left out. There seems to always be controversy surrounding the teams that for reason or another didn't make it, but those that do more than make up for it. Take the Big Ten Conference for instance. This year the Big Ten was very competitive, and up until the last day of the regular season, the seedings for the conference tournament was still in doubt. The top three seeds, Michigan State, Illinois and Purdue pretty much stayed up near the top for most of the season, but it was the fourth through ninth seeds that were in doubt. A cluster of teams went into the final weekend not knowing where they would fall, but the stage is now set and this is how the chips fell:

Thursday's games start off with Minnesota (#8) taking on Northwestern (#9) in the first game of the day, followed by Michigan (#7) battling Iowa (#10) in the second contest. The third and final game of the opening day will feature Penn State (#6) taking to the court against Indiana (#11). Friday's games begin early with the top seed Michigan State taking on the winner of the Minnesota-Northwestern game. The second game of the day on Friday will feature Wisconsin (#4) going up against Ohio State (#5). The evening session will pit Illinois (#2) taking on the Michigan-Iowa winner, followed by Purdue (#3) battling the winner of the Penn State-Indiana game. The way the conference season has gone, this year's tournament will be one of high excitement and very unpredictable as a lot of the teams are similar in talent. This should be a fun four days!

Which leads me to my next topic, where should the Big Ten Tournament be held? The Big Ten currently has a contract with the city of Indianapolis through 2011 to host the Big Ten Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse, and then once that contract is up, bids can once again be submitted for other possible locations. Chicago has been the only other city to host the tournament since its inception 11 years ago, so the debate rages of which city is better suited to host the tournament. Both cities have their selling points, but in my opinion, once stands out much more clear than the other one. Chicago is one of the largest cities in the United States, and has a lot to offer in the way of fine dining, shopping and other attractions. Plus, the United Center is affectionately known as the "House That Jordan Built". Indianapolis is a smaller city than Chicago, and their arena, Conseco, isn't as well known as the UC. But there are other characteristics that make this decision a no-brainer. Chicago, as has been previously mentioned, has many nice establishments, but they are located at a distance from the United Center, as are many of the quality hotels. Plus, the area around the arena isn't the best place to be after dark. Indy, on the other hand, is nestled in the downtown area close to both restaurants and hotels, and everything is a short walk away. Just park your car and go!

Seeing everyone from the different schools all walking the downtown areas also gives off a sense of being, and Indianapolis plays along with the part by renaming each of the streets downtown to honor each of the schools. Plus, an official gathering place is set up for each of the participating schools to add excitement and camaraderie for everyone. So, based on these selling points, there is no question where I think the tournament should be held.

Other cities have been mentioned as possible hosts of the Big Ten Tournament, namely Detroit, but Indianapolis is pretty much centrally located and for what it all offers, there should be no debate.

So, what do you think? Do you agree with me that Indianapolis is a good place to host the Big Ten Tournament? I welcome any and all comments to this question.