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.