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.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Welcome To Mediocracy.

2010 has not exactly started off the way Illini Nation had wanted it to. Both the men's and women's basketball teams are struggling in Big Ten play, and the game of musical chairs that is going on with the football coaches leaves one to wonder what the next football season will bring. First to the men's basketball issue. The Illini, after starting out 4-0 in Big 10 play by beating teams that they should have, have fallen on tough times, losing 3 straight, including games at home to Purdue and on the road at Northwestern. There has been a lot of talk, especially in the past week, about Bruce Weber and what the future holds for him as coach at Illinois. Since the Final Four year, Illinois has a record of 101-56 overall and 40-35 in the Big Ten. (These records are through Saturday's game at Northwestern). Outstanding, not in the least. But, are these numbers really indicative of talking about Weber being fired? I realize that whenever the Illini lose a game, there are people that come right out and think that Illinois needs a coaching change. How do I know this? I hear people talk, and I do my share of listening to radio talk shows and reading message boards. As I mentioned several months ago in a previous blog, Illini fans are spoiled and think that they should be winning at a better percentage than they are. Most people that have a good basketball sense realize that the Final Four team was a much more talented team than what Illinois is comprised of this season, and to further that argument, those players were not recruited by Weber. Since that time when Weber has been doing the recruiting, the caliber of players is good, but not great like those teams. The freshmen on this year's team, namely Brandon Paul (right) and D. J. Richardson, started off the year like gangbusters, and everybody began to elevate them on a pedestal as can't miss prospects. Well, then they hit the wall, one by one. The jury is still out on Joseph Bertrand, because he has been injured for most of the year and will end up redshirting. That leaves Tyler Griffey, who as of late has shown flashes of brilliance. This Illinois team is one that will still be in tact next season, because they only lose Dominique Keller, who came in as a junior college transfer, as well as Bubba Chisholm, a fan favorite that is a walk-on, also from the juco ranks. That being said, there are some enduring questions that remain from the players that will be returning.

Where has Mike Davis gone? Or at least, the Mike Davis that consistently put up double-doubles every game, or close to it. Lately, Davis has been non-existent, as the game at Northwestern demonstrated, when he finished with no points and only took 3 shots.

Who told Mike Tisdale that he is a three-point shooter? Shouldn't someone 7'0 tall be under the basket, rebounding shots that the guards are missing? Instead, he is constantly out on the perimeter, leaving either Davis or, sometimes, nobody, to rebound shots. This is, case in point, why Illinois keeps getting outrebounded night after night.

The Illini seem to be relying on Demetri McCamey to carry them, which he has in the past few games. If not for his play on several occasions, the Illini might be even worse off than what they are now. This lack of leadership has led Weber to forbid the players to talk to the media until further notice. This gag order was a result of nobody stepping up after the Northwestern debacle and taking a stance in the locker room. At least last year, the Illini had Chester Frazier to rally the team when they needed it most. This year's team doesn't have that sort of voice. At one point, it appeared that McCamey would be the guy, but that hasn't happened. Or, perhaps Tisdale? Not happening, yet. Davis? He needs to be concerned about his disappearing act right now. So, you see, Illini fans can expect more of the same next year if something doesn't change on this team. They will add Luther Head's younger brother Crandall to the mix next year, along with another big man Meyers Leonard, as well as Jereme Richmond, but if someone doesn't step and take ownership of this team, nothing that Weber says or does will do anything to change things. I am in the agreement with many people that if Weber doesn't do something to get back on track after next season, then changes may have to be made. But right now, I don't believe that to be the case. The Illini have two games coming up that are winnable, first on Wednesday night at Penn State (5:30 pm, Big Ten Network), and then on Saturday at home against Indiana. They really cannot afford to drop any of these games, because their slim NCAA Tourney hopes took a huge hit with the loss to the Wildcats, and there isn't anyone that would disagree with that.

Onto the women's side of things, where the situation isn't much better. When Jolette Law (right) was hired as the women's coach, the way she talked gave people the impression that she wanted to come in and change the perception of the program. The last coach, Theresa Grentz, was well known for running players out of the program, which didn't do much for continuity. Since Law was hired, her record doesn't exemplify this vision at all. She is 41-44 overall, and only 16-29 in Big Ten play, never finishing higher than 9th place in any season (she is in her third season, and these stats are through the Penn State game on Sunday). Plus, Law has done her share of running players from the program. So far, Danyel Crutcher has been shown the door, and top recruit Destiny Williams left the program after only playing in 1 game. Williams has since transferred to Baylor, and there is wide speculation about why she left, but only her mother knows the real reason, and promised to keep quiet about the situation if her daughter was released from her scholarship. Also, the crowds still have not been what Law was hoping for. There have been several promotional ideas that have been designed to draw fans to watch the women, but none of those have produced a sellout as of yet. Here's an idea: put a winning program on the floor and maybe fans will come out to see what all the fuss is about. Illinois will never be a powerhouse like Tennessee or Connecticut, which consistently draw capacity crowds to their arenas, and even if they develop into a winning program, will not see that type of support unless it is sustained over many years. Pat Summitt or Geno Auriemma Jolette Law is not.

As if the above programs were not enough, there is the question of how good the football program will be next season, given all of the changes that have taken place internally since last season ended in December. Amid the mediocrity since the Rose Bowl season of 2007, Ron Zook (below, right) remained in charge, but his supporting cast has taken on an entirely new look. Coordinators on both sides of the football have changed, as well as the running back, quarterback, and tight ends coach. You always remain speculative until these coaches start working with players somewhere besides a classroom, but the way some of them are talking lends a little hope to what may be another disappointing season on the field. The new offensive coordinator, Paul Petrino, seems to know what he wants to do at Illinois, but will he have the tools necessary to make that happen? Regus Benn is off to the NFL draft, and a couple other receivers transferred out of the program, leaving a handful of players eager for a new system, and hopefully a fresh start. With signing day for football quickly approaching, it will be interesting to see what kind of a recruiting class Illinois ends up with this year. There have been some high profile recruits that have backed out of their agreements, while others are still on board, hoping for change. We should know pretty soon just how far Illinois is from achieving that goal.

So, has Illinois settled in for mediocracy? Granted, you can't have a winning season every year, but if the men's team misses out on the NCAA Tourney this year (which looks likely at this point), will that be enough to make Illini Nation groan even louder? If the women cannot turn it around and even make a post-season tourney (still in the balance), is that reason to look toward a change? And, finally, if Zook cannot get the football program back on track with this new cast of characters, will that finally be enough for him to be shown the door? I know people have their opinions on this matter, and I would love to debate them with you. Please send me your comments and let the battle begin!

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

New year, new challenges.

With the start of the new year comes renewed hope for both the men's and women's basketball teams as they begin conference play. First, on the men's side, Bruce Weber's crew finished the non-conference portion of the schedule at 8-5, although there were a couple of games that very much could have ended up in the win column. Losses against Bradley, Utah and Georgia hurt their RPI, and even though the Illini made a valiant comeback against Gonzaga at the United Center only to fall short, the team proved one thing; it can fall behind and still come back and win ballgames, or at least make things interesting. Already in Big 10 play, the Illini have had to come from behind in 2 of the first 3 games to stay perfect. The latest occurrence was last Saturday evening at the other Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana, where the Illini played about as badly as you can play and trailed by as much as 15 points. Then, in the second half, almost by clockwork, the Illini began their comeback and eventually won the game. Mike Tisdale led all scorers against the Hoosiers with 27 points, which included 13 of 14 from the charity stripe. Weber has switched the lineup around for the last couple of games, giving Bill Cole and Jeff Jordan starts because of their defense and willingness to get in there and do what it takes. In the victory over Indiana, it was Demetri McCamey that came off the bench to score 19 points, seeming to take over the game at times. According to Weber, it is something that he likes to see with McCamey, and that maybe he is getting the message about riding the pine to begin games. The slow start sort of continued against Penn State as well, and the Illini once again found themselves in a position to come back and win the game. This time, McCamey put the game on his shoulders, scoring 18 of his game high 25 points after halftime. Tisdale also had a good game, scoring 16 points, grabbing 13 rebounds, and nearly collecting a triple double with 7 blocked shots. This trend will have to change, however, as the road begins to get mighty tough starting out with a trip to the Breslin Center in East Lansing to face the #7 Michigan State Spartans (2:30 pm, WCIA). After that, another ranked team comes to the Assembly Hall when the Illini host Purdue on Tuesday, January 19 (8:00 pm, ESPN).

On the women's side of things, you need a bottle of Tums to watch this team perform, as they have had several down-to-the-wire games as of late. The last three games for the women have come down to the end, and the Illini have been on the winning end of 2 of those games. Jenna Smith continues to dazzle and rack up double-doubles, and with counterpart Lacey Simpson, plus talented freshmen in Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold, one wonders how close Jolette Law's team is to turning the corner and making a serious push at an NCAA berth. The Illini took their show on the road to Columbus, Ohio on Thursday night and faced a talented Ohio State team, who is ranked #5 in the country by no accident. The Lady Illini made a valiant comeback, but fell just short, losing 72-61 to 11-5 overall and 3-3 in Big Ten play. The Illini will be in action on Sunday afternoon when they travel to Madison, Wisconsin to face the Wisconsin Badgers, a team that they beat 53-52 back on January 3.

Speaking of the women's program, it looks as if the Destiny Williams saga is finally over. Last week, Williams' mother issued a statement that effectively removed her from the team and Coach Law let her out of her scholarship, provided that nothing was released about why she left the team and Illinois in general. Hmmmmm. Sounds like there is something more going on here than meets the eye. Law considers it a dead issue and is moving on from this point, but I don't think we have heard the last of the story. More to follow if I hear anything on it. Otherwise, Destiny just wasn't in the cards at Illinois.

Finally, you think you've heard enough about the football program during the off-season, but the coaching changes keep on happening. After Reggie Mitchell left for Kansas, Ron Zook has hired DeAndre Smith to fill the open spot and coach running backs. Smith came from UNLV, where he coached in the same capacity, and over his coaching tenure, has tutored 11 1,000 yard backs. Sounds like things are looking up offensively with the Petrino, Brohm, Nord and now Smith added to the staff. Concurrently, when Vic Koenning was hired to be the new defensive coordinator, one knew that the dominoes were not done falling on that side of the ball as well. Sure enough, Curt Mallory, who was a co-coordinator with Dan Disch, left the program to take the defensive coordinator position at the University of Akron. This leaves Disch on staff to work on Koenning's defensive staff, and something tells me that the moves may not all be done yet. You will definitely need a scorecard to tell who is who when spring practice begins. I just hope that we are able to see what is going on.