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.