Rather than start with football like I normally do in the look back each week, basketball will take the lead this time around. When the middle of October rolls around each year, no matter how the football team is doing, it means that basketball season is just beginning. Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini men's team is turning heads once again, as he welcomes a freshman class of four players to the already budding group of stars in the making. When Jerrance Howard joined the coaching staff from Kentucky 3 years ago, the foundation was laid for recruiting to get back on track. Jerrance just has this repoire with talking to guys, and when he played, you could tell that his enthusiasm would be put to good use. So, you can say that the current group of newbies that include D. J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, and Tyler Griffey, was due in large part to Howard. After all, Jerrance is a Peoria guy, and that is where D. J. hails from. Last season, however, Richardson spent the season playing at a prep school in Las Vegas to hone his study skills and maybe, just maybe, to get some basketball savvy as well. The results so far have been well received. The Illini held their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage last Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall, and the sparse crowd on hand was treated to something they hadn't seen in quite some time, which was good, outside perimeter shooting. The freshmen all looked pretty good, most notably Richardson, who really was stroking it from beyond the arc. Bertrand, who has been dealing with an ankle injury, looks like he is ready to go, as does Paul. Griffey, the one big man in the class, looks as if he may contribute more than first thought.
The surprise of the scrimmage, in my opinion , was the play of Alex Legion. When Legion transferred from Kentucky in December of 2007, he was talked about as being a good shooter and a nice complement to Demetri McCamey. However, he didn't exhibit that once he became eligible last December, and struggled to find his shot. That all has appeared to change, as he led all scorers in the scrimmage with 28 points, including about 5 in a row from 3-point range. Such flair will be a welcome sight to Illini Nation once the season gets rolling. Speaking of McCamey, last season he was known to clash at times with Weber and didn't always see eye to eye with his coach. According to Weber, he is seeing things much clearer as the new season begins, and it is showing so far in his play. He, too, seems to be shooting the ball much better and moving with more grace as a result. A welcome sight was that of Jeff Jordan, who rejoined the team just before the "Spike The Record" event. Jordan was in attendance for the opening night scrimmage, but did not take part in the festivities. Weber said that if Jordan was willing to work and catch up for all the workouts that he has missed, then he would be welcome to rejoin the team. I think he still has some game left in him, and quite possibly may be a big help to the team later on in the season. The Illini begin their season with the first of two exhibition games on Friday night when they welcome Division II Missouri Southern to the Assembly Hall. What that will tell us may not be much, but at least it will be a chance to play a game against someone else.
By now everyone knows that during halftime of last Saturday's Illinois-Purdue football game in West Lafayette, University of Illinois Athletic Director Ron Guenther issued a statement, albeit brief, giving Ron Zook a vote of confidence and also stands behind him as coach through the end of the 2010 season. Now, for what it's worth, the last time a promise like this was made, a coach was fired at the end of the same season that it was issued. Ron Turner got the vote of confidence in 2004, and was promptly fired at the end of that season. As has been mentioned often over the past few weeks, Guenther is a football man and will stick by his coach until he sees the need to let go. But how do you gauge when enough is enough? When ticket sales start to sag? When donors stop giving? When the high-priced luxury boxes don't get renewed? It's no secret that Zook hasn't exactly had a successful career at Illinois, save for the one season when they went to the Rose Bowl. Back to the game with the Boilermakers, the Illini looked like they were going to do something early on when they actually took a 7-0 lead early in the game, only to see Purdue march right back and tie the score. That is where the fun stopped. A bright spot in the game was the play of redshirt freshman Jacob Charest, who performed admirably in his first collegiate action. Leading the Illini down the field near the end of the first half, they got inside the 10 yard line when Zook made a move that is still being questioned. He brought Juice back in because they wanted to control the line of scrimmage and run the ball in. Couldn't Charest of handed the ball off as Juice did? After all, he was the one that got them in that position. Well, the series ended in disaster as Matt Eller missed a chip shot of a field goal. Pretty much sums up the Illini season thus far.
The Illini get a chance at redemption this coming Saturday (2:30 pm, ABC) when the hated Michigan Wolverines come into town to play. Now, I don't mean to offend any Michigan alums that may read this, but the Illini and the Wolverines have a history that goes way, way back. The Illini beat Michigan 45-20 a year ago in Ann Arbor, a game in which Juice Williams set the Michigan Stadium record for total offense in a game by a single player. That is quite a record to obtain, given all of the talented players that have played inside those walls. This could be a shot of redemption for the Illini if they can find some way, any way of knocking off the Wolverines. At 1-6 overall and winless in 5 tries in conference play this season, the Illini are looking for any positive signs in what has been a very dismal season. Zook stated in his weekly press gathering that both Williams and Charest would see action, although he wasn't annointing one above the other. He also hinted that the kicking duties may change as well, given Eller's miss against Purdue. Will one win do anything for this sinking ship that keeps taking on water? Maybe not, but if it's against Michigan, at least you can feel good about something.
The women's volleyball and soccer teams continue their seasons, and appear to be headed in opposite directions. The volleyball team defeated Wisconsin in 4 games and Iowa in 3 games last weekend to up their record to 16-3 overall and 8-2 in Big Ten play. The Illini are currently ranked #6 in the latest AVCA poll, and will travel to Indiana and Purdue this weekend to try and continue their winning streak. The soccer team has endured a tough week, falling twice without scoring a goal. The Illini lost to #19 Ohio State last Thursday 3-0, and then fell to Penn State 6-0 on Sunday. The Illini are 6-7-3 overall, but just 1-4-2 in conference play. They will try and right the ship this weekend when they welcome Michigan State and Michigan to the Illinois Soccer Stadium for the final two home matches of the season.
Gotta love the sports seasons when they overlap!