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.