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.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dear Santa - From an Illini fan's perspective

With the Christmas season upon us and only two days before the big guy from the North Pole makes his annual pilgrimage around this world of ours, I often wonder what a letter to Santa would look like from the average fan of Illini Nation. Well, thanks to the magic of print and a little bit of imagination, I think it would go something like this:

Dear Santa-

I have been a very good fan this year, rooting the Illini on in good times and bad, and judging the football season that just ended a few weeks ago, it couldn't possibly get much worse, could it? I paid my dues by buying season tickets, purchasing Illini merchandise for my family, and spending my hard earned money on concessions to keep them happy during these games. So, I do have a few requests as we embark on the year 2010 and hopefully brighter days ahead. I wish for these new coaching hires that have recently been added to all pull together and try to put a winning product on the field. I realize that it is not always the coaches that are the problem, but they do teach the players what to do, and so they usually shoulder their share of the blame. I realize Mr. Guenther, or as Ron Zook likes to call him, Coach Guenther (still haven't figured that one out), has a ton of faith in Zook, or else he would have sent him packing like Mr. Tepper and Mr. Turner before him. I was disappointed to see Reggie Mitchell leave for Kansas, but he evidently saw an opportunity and maybe thinks that a change of scenery is the best option for him. I wish him well.

I would also like to see the recruiting improve, something that Zook has been able to hang his hat on in recent seasons. But, when a program that has been up and down (more down) like our beloved Illini, I cannot really blame players if they don't want to come here and play. It is, after all, a matter of choice. That being said, would a trip to a bowl game be too much to ask for? Usually, we don't have any plans around the holidays except for watching other teams play in games like the Las Vegas Bowl and the Poinsettia Bowl. It would be nice to have the Illini play in a bowl of their own, maybe like the Sun Bowl or one of those in a warm weather climate. Beats spending Christmas and New Years in the cold and dampness of the Midwest.

Now, on to basketball. I really like the job that Bruce Weber is doing with the basketball team, although he does have his critics that think he could do better. Every season we look forward to the start of practice during football season, and anticipate the first exhibition game, which leads to the start of the regular season. The Missouri Braggin' Rights game is always a fun time, and or course, there is the United Center game at the home-away-from home. One thing, Santa about the basketball team that I would like to see change is for the team to develop some heart to finish strong down the stretch. I know basketball doesn't take as long to turn around a program than a football team does, but our 3 losses this year all have came to mediocre teams that have simply wanted it more than we have. You couldn't ask for more talented freshmen than what we have, and what is coming further down the road makes me just giddy with anticipation. Yet, this business of getting to the NCAA Tournament and lasting just 1 or 2 games is getting a bit old. Schools rich in basketball tradition like Duke, North Carolina and Kansas seem to do it every year. Why can't we be like them?

Thank you for taking these wishes to heart, Santa. I will be sure to leave you cookies and plenty of orange and blue kool-aid for when you come. Have fun going around on your big night.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Getting Offensive

Football season has been over for almost 2 weeks now (at least on the campus of the University of Illinois - and some would agree that it has been even longer than that.), and yet the program still is making news. Late last week, Ron Zook made headlines by firing four assistants on the offensive side of the football. Offensive coordinator and tight ends coach Mike Schultz, as expected, was one that was let go, as was quarterbacks coach Kurt Beathard, receivers coach Jim Pry, and special teams coordinator Mike Woodford. Also making changes on the defensive side of the ball, Zook demoted Curt Mallory and Dan Disch, who were co-defensive coordinators this past year. They will remain as position coaches on defense, and the search was on to find a defensive coordinator with some high credentials. Action such as this is typical at the end of a season, especially for schools that aren't "going bowling". Many have expressed that is should have been Zook that was out the door, but athletic director Ron Guenther is sticking by his claim that Zook was safe at least for another year. Now, I am sure that all bets are off if the Illini happen to tank again next season, and then you probably will see a change at the top.

Early this week, rumors began to surface of possible replacements that were making their way to Champaign. On Tuesday, those reports were confirmed as Paul Petrino was named the new offensive coordinator. Petrino, who is the brother of former Louisville and current Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, comes to Illinois with some good credentials and a love of an "open offense" that will, in his own words, "FTS (Feed The Studs). Other reports have Jeff Brohm and Greg Nord both headed to Illinois from Louisville to fill offensive position needs. I had a chance to speak to Petrino after his introductory press conference and asked him point blank if the offense that he plans to bring to Illinois is what he ran at Arkansas. He assured me it was. So, those of you that are excited for the upcoming bowl season to start, be sure to watch Arkansas in the Liberty Bowl on January 2. You will get a good idea of what the Illini will be showcasing.

Petrino mentioned that he will employ an offense that will involve the tight ends more. Well, that could be an issue with the recent graduation of Michael Hoomanawanui and Jeff Cumberland, coupled with the transfer of Hubie Graham. This leaves Zach Becker and Justin Lattimore as the only players at the position that have actually seen time there. Also, losing highly touted prospect C. J. Fedorowicz begs the question, why wasn't this done a month ago? What harm would it have done to try and keep this prospect, that is going to Iowa?

Petrino will be without one of those "studs" come next season, as on Wednesday Arrelious "Regus" Benn (right) made his decision to forego his senior season and enter the 2010 NFL draft. This was not a shocking revelation, as everyone knows what Regus can do and he is still being projected as a high first round pick on draft day. One wonders what might have been had he not been dealing with injuries this season, or was thrown to more than he was. Still, it's a business decision and one that makes sense to me for him to make. I wish him well, but will miss seeing #9 running the sidelines catching passes and also that infectious smile.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Shootout At The Hall

The Assembly Hall normally plays host to men's and women's basketball, among other events throughout the year. However, for the past four years, the Assembly Hall has been the venue for an event that showcases some of the best high school talent in the state of Illinois. This year is no different, and to go one step better, there are teams from 2 other states involved. The main focus of the shootout is to bring in the players and teams that the Illini have either recruited or are on their radar in terms of being looked at. The shootout was given an extra measure of credibility when former Illini star and current Utah Jazz player Deron Williams lent his name to the event.

In the first game of the shootout, Rich South defeated Champaign Central 53-47 in a game that was tight all the way through. Central is one of the local teams, and features a sophomore by the name of Jay Simpson that is already committed to play at Purdue. Rich South, who was missing their star Crandall Head, younger brother of former Illini Luther Head, played pretty well without him. Crandall is committed to the Illini and will join them next season along with a couple other players competing in the shootout.

The second game of the day featured a couple of teams, one with strong ties to Coach Bruce Weber. Glenbrook North, who produced Jon Scheyer, now at Duke, is coached by Bruce's younger brother David Weber. One of the better players for Glenbrook just happens to be Weber's son, Austin. (Yep, Bruce's nephew). This was a low scoring affair, with the Spartans coming out on top over Peoria Notre Dame 41-23. Glenbrook North moves to 8-0 and has one of the better teams in the state in Class 4A and also feature Jordan Liss and Alex Dragicevich, the latter of which is headed to Notre Dame next year to play basketball. The Irish have a decent player on their team as well, his name being Max Bielfeldt, and he led them in scoring with 8 points.

The third game of the day featured one team that needs no introduction to the state of Illinois, and the other one making their shootout debut. Peoria Manual, who was dominant back in the 90's, still is pretty good, and has produced countless talent to the Division 1 level. Many of those players have come to Illinois, among them Sergio McClain, Marcus Griffin, Frank Williams, and Jerry Hester. Marvin Jordan was one of the players to watch for the Rams, and he didn't disappoint, scoring 10 points. Bowman Academy, which hails from Gary, Indiana, has a superstar of their own in DeJuan Marrero, who lived up to his expectations as well by scoring 20. Marrero is only a sophomore, and at 6'5, still has a lot of growing to do. He is on the radar for the Illini as well. Bowman Academy defeated Manual 69-50 t0 stay perfect on the season.

Game four of the day featured the first overtime game of the shootout, a 68-62 victory by Chicago Mt. Carmel over Peoria Central. Mount Carmel features an Illini commitment, Tracy Abrams, who is a 6'1 junior. Abrams has been on the radar of the Illini for quite a while, and will be joining them in the class of 2011. Peoria Central features a young star in the making of their own in Antonio "Bobo" Drummond. Although Drummond didn't lead the Lions in scoring (2 other players each scored 16), he promises to be a good player and can even get better than he is now.

The fifth game featured another player that will be wearing the orange and blue next year for Robinson. Meyers Leonard, who stands 7'0 tall and will be joining fellow Illini junior Mike Tisdale on the front line next year. However, Rock Island, who played the Maroons, has a superstar in the making as well by the name of Chasson Randle. Randle, who is a junior, still has Illinois in his sights but won't make a firm commitment for a while yet. The Rocks defeated Robinson 58-53 behind 28 points by Randle. Leonard scored 16 for the Maroons, who are a much smaller school than their counterparts.

Game six of the day featured another local team, the Champaign Centennial Chargers, facing the Waukegan Bulldogs. Centennial, who is the defending Class 3A state champs, is off to another undefeated start and features a team loaded with talent. Rayvonte Rice, who is headed to Drake, is the real deal, and the folks in Des Moines, Iowa are lucky to be getting him. Also on the Chargers' roster is Jeff Johnson, who will take his game to Eastern Kentucky next year. Waukegan, who features yet another recruit for the Fighting Illini (notice a trend yet?) in Jereme Richmond. Richmond, who has been committed to Illinois since he was an eighth grader, has kept the commitment firm and despite some troubles that led to switching schools midway through high school, never wavered. Plus, his game has gotten better as well and should be a good fit for the Illini next year. The Chargers kept their unbeaten streak alive by defeating the Bulldogs as Rice scored 32 points to lead his team to victory. Richmond will look good in orange and blue as well next season.

The final game of the evening pitted two prep schools who have already played twice this season. Quality Education Prep from Winston-Salem, North Carolina took on Brehm Prep from Carbondale in a game that could have resembled a college game with the talent on the floor. The two teams played on Friday night, with Quality Education coming out on top in that one. Brehm lost their best player, James Siakem, due to several broken bones in his face. He is apparently headed to New York for surgery soon. Quality Education boasts a roster that most college teams would love to have with five players standing 6'8 or taller. Their marquee player is Quincy Miller, who may have the most talent of anyone in the shootout field. The Pharoahs play a national schedule, which could stand the reason why they are so talented. Brehm, who without Siakem, still only lost 76-74, made up for their star player's loss by getting 24 points from Bruce Barron in their defeat.

I think that the cupboard for Illini hoops in the near future looks pretty full and great things might be in store.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

A Sad State Of Affairs

And, mercifully, this football season is over! In weather more befitting caroling, the Fighting Illini saw their 2009 season come to a crushing and heartbreaking end as they dropped a 53-52 decision to the Fresno State Bulldogs last Saturday afternoon at a frigid Memorial Stadium in Champaign. This has been a season of disappointment for the Illini, most notably because of the lack of play on the field not being consistent with the level of talent. Several times on Saturday the Illini had the Bulldogs right where they wanted them, but every time they managed to find a way back into the game. What happened at the end of the game was a fitting end to the entire season. With the Illini leading 52-45 late in the game, the Bulldogs got the ball back and moved down the field with relative ease. With time running out, Fresno State appeared to score a touchdown, and video replay evidence confirming that ruling, the decision was whether the Bulldogs would kick the extra point to tie and send the game to overtime, or try for the two-point conversion and try to win it in regulation. After a series of timeouts, Fresno decided to go for two, and got it on a deflection to an offensive lineman. That play also was reviewed, and ruled a conversion, sending the few thousand fans in attendance home stunned, yet probably not surprised at how the game ended. Juice Williams and the seniors deserved better, and as Ron Zook had said several times in the week preceding the game, these players came to Illinois at a time when it was not popular to do so.

So, where does this leave the program? Not good, by any stretch of the imagination. Recruits are decommitting, players are leaving the team for various reasons, and what it all boils down to is a recruiting class of just 8 players for 2010. Yes, 8. How did things get so bad so fast? You can start at the top with that question. Known as a good recruiter coming to Illinois, Zook has proved that he can get the players here, but coaching them and, ultimately, keeping the players here is an entirely separate issue. It is no secret that there will be some coaches that will be searching for new jobs soon, and one wonders just how firm athletic director Ron Guenther was in his "vote of confidence" for Zook midway through this season. Under the current circumstances, this cannot continue. The program is getting a bad name, but Illinois has never been known as a football school anyway. In the last 14 years, the Illini have been to just three bowl games. That is down right embarrassing compared to schools such as Ohio State, Penn State, Michigan, and even Purdue. Still, a lot of these player defections that have surfaced the past few days are just rumors and not confirmed yet. What ultimately will happen if any more recruits de-commit is that Zook, or whomever, will be offering players that may not have been considered for Big 10 programs. This is not good, folks, and it doesn't appear to be getting any better soon.

On to some much better news. Following their stunning come-from-behind win over Clemson last week, the Fighting Illini returned to the Assembly Hall for the first of 3 games before final exams on campus. Saturday night the Illini entertained Boise State, and even though they didn't play very well, still escaped with an 84-77 win. You expect the Illini to play the lesser name schools better, but for some reason, they let the Broncos hang with them for much of the game. When the Big 10 season begins later this month, this type of play will need to cease or else the Illini will find themselves on the losing end of most of those games. The freshmen still continue to impress, and another one made an impression in the win over Boise. Tyler Griffey, from Wildwood, Missouri, had his best game of his Illinois career, showcasing his shooting touch from outside. Then the Illini welcomed Vanderbilt, a team that they defeated a year ago in Nashville. The Illini prevailed against the Commodores as well, 79-68, as Demetri McCamey scored 23 points to lead his team to victory. The freshmen came alive once again, as D. J. Richardson added 16 for the Illini as they moved to 7-2 on the season. The win over Vanderbilt was also the second win over a top 25 team this season. Illinois was in the top 25 at one point this season, but the Vegas trip put the kabosh on that real quick. The Illini continue their season this Sunday against Western Michigan (1:30 pm, Big Ten Network), before the annual Border War game against Missouri shortly before Christmas.

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team survived the first 2 rounds of the NCAA Tournament, and will now head west to face Hawaii, and most likely Stanford. The Illini got by Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne and Dayton in the first two rounds played at Huff Hall, and will now see how they stack up against the likes of the elite in the nation. This region is stacked to begin with, seeing as the latest AVCA rankings had Stanford #3, Hawaii #4, and the Illini #5. Coach Kevin Hambly enjoys this level of competition and feels that they can compete and get a spot in the final four.

Finally, Jolette Law has the Illini women's basketball team playing some of the best basketball that the program has seen in many years. After an opening season loss to Temple in a game that the Illini had a sizable lead, they have run off 7 straight wins to give the program a little respectability and a lot of hope. On Wednesday evening, Marquette paid the Illini a visit, and unfortunately for the home standers, defeated Illinois 65-55 in a game that was televised on the Big Ten Network. That still leaves the Illini at 7-2, which is not a bad start to the season. The conference portion of the schedule begins soon, so Law will need to keep her team playing well if it wants a chance to play in March. Stay tuned.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Rolling Snake Eyes In Vegas

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini finished up the Las Vegas Invitational in Sin City over the Thanksgiving holiday, and came up with a result that was not to their liking, or anyone else's in Illini Nation. The Illini breezed through the first two games of the invitational, defeating Presbyterian and Wofford, and headed west to face Utah and what looked like Oklahoma State for the title. Well, sometimes things don't end up like you expect them to, and the Illini blew a 16 point halftime lead to the Utes and ultimately fell 60-58 on a runner by Shawn Glover at the buzzer. The Illini freshman duo of Brandon Paul and D. J. Richardson, who looked very good for the first four games of the season, found that life away from the Assembly Hall isn't the same as playing in front of the home fans. In fact, the two need to learn quite a few things or else all of the road trips and neutral court games will end up in a similar fashion. Weber says that he is still looking for a leader to emerge on this team, and the challengers right now seem to be Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey. McCamey scored 19 points and Tisdale added 18 in the loss, but others will have to step up and help these guys out. On Saturday night, the Illini played for third place against the Bradley Braves, and it was a tight game for the entire contest. Mike Davis led the Illini in scoring against the Braves with 17 points, while Tisdale added 12 and McCamey chipped in 10 points. However, Bradley handed the Illini their second consecutive loss, 72-68, and sent the Illini home with a fourth place finish in the tourney. It was far from the expectations that they had going out there, but then again, this is a team that still has to gel together and fill in the missing pieces left from last year. The Illini get a chance to start another winning streak on Saturday evening when they welcome Boise State to the Assembly Hall (6:30 pm, Big Ten Network).

This week begins the 11th annual Big 10/ACC Challenge, which up to this point has been dominated by the ACC. The Big 10 has never won a challenge, and really haven't come close in any either. However, as I type this blog, the Big 10 has a 3-1 lead and are splitting the final two games of the evening. They could very easily go into the final day of the event needing just 2 wins to capture their first ACC/Big 10 Challenge and bragging rights for a year. The Illini have drawn as their opponent the Clemson Tigers, which they play for the second consecutive year. The Illini lost to Clemson 76-74 last year in Champaign, and will play on Wednesday (6:15 pm, ESPN) at Littlejohn Coliseum in Clemson, South Carolina. For the Illini to get past Clemson this time around, the freshmen will need to grow up and play like upperclassmen and forget that they are first-year players. Also, someone, anyone, needs to step up and become a leader on the floor. That way, when things start going south like it did in Vegas, there can be someone to step in and get them back on track.

Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini football team will put the wrap on the 2009 season this Saturday when they welcome the Fresno State Bulldogs (11:30 am, Big Ten Network) to a cold Memorial Stadium for the first ever college football game in the month of December. Sure, the year the Bears played at Memorial Stadium there were December games, but the NFL is used to playing in this month. So, too, are football programs that are perennial bowl contenders. Illinois is not one of those such programs. It might be a different story if this game meant something, but it doesn't mean anything to the Illini. It is senior day, and Juice Williams' final game as an Illini, as well as for a host of other seniors playing their final game in front of the home crowd. It hasn't been easy for this group of players, and according to Zook, they came to Illinois at a time when it wasn't popular to do so. In fact, Williams committed to play for the Illini the night that Penn State defeated Illinois 63-10. Sure, it could have been better, and for all intensive purposes, it should have been better. But, this is Illinois. Not known as a football school, and the way this season has gone, that moniker won't change anytime soon.

Coach Jolette Law has the Fighting Illini women's basketball team off to a 6-1 start on the season, the best start in nearly a decade. Law had her troops out in San Luis Obispo, California in a tournament that they won, defeating Cal Poly (56-47) and Alabama (64-55). Senior Jenna Smith continued to dominate, averaging 21 points and 15 rebounds in the tourney. Smith has posted a double-double in 6 of the 7 games that the Illini have played in this season. The women will travel to Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Wednesday evening to take on Wake Forest in the women's version of the ACC/Big 10 Challenge. The Illini will next take the court at the Assembly Hall on December 9th, when they host Marquette at 8:00 pm.

When Kevin Hambly took over for Don Hardin as women's volleyball coach, nobody expected him to continue the success that the program had developed over the years. But Hambly has done exceptionally well, getting his girls into the NCAA Tournament and hosting a first and second round matchup this Thursday and Friday at Huff Hall. The Illini fell to Minnesota in their final match of the regular season, but still managed to get the fifth overall seed in the tournament, pairing them with Stanford in the regional. The Illini draws as their first round match the Mastadons from Indiana-Purdue-Fort Wayne (IPFW) (7:00 pm), who are making their first tournament appearance. If the Illini can get past IPFW, they will play the winner of the other match, Milwaukee vs. Dayton on Friday. The winner leaving Champaign gets to travel to Stanford to feed into that regional.