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, February 17, 2010

Beginning The Homestretch Run

Fans of Illini Nation rejoice! The success of the 2009-10 men's basketball team has made everyone forget the struggles of the football team over the past couple seasons, but that situation might be changing, however. More on that later, but now back to basketball. The ESPN Gameday visit was a resounding success, and to top it all off, the Fighting Illini came away with a much needed victory over the Michigan State Spartans 78-73, in one of the most thrilling games at the Assembly Hall in recent memory. Complete with a court rush by the Orange Krush, it was certainly a night to remember. The Illini followed that win up by travelling to Madison, Wisconsin and defeating the Badgers at the Kohl Center, a place where you don't win very often, if at all. In the Bo Ryan era at Wisconsin, the Illini have won in Madison 3 times, something few programs can boast. On the heels of those two victories, the Illini returned home last Sunday to face yet another ranked team, the Ohio State Buckeyes, who might be playing the best basketball in the conference at the moment. They certainly looked every bit of that, as they dismantled the Illini 72-53, giving the Illini their worst loss in over 30 years at home, and stunting any momentum that they had over the course of the past few games. So, what went wrong? First of all, Ohio State started out in a zone, which threw the Illini off. That could have been rectified, but for some reason, it wasn't. This Illini team lives and dies by Demetri McCamey, and if he is not on his game, then problems very likely are bound to occur. The Buckeyes once again have their star player back, who was also a high school teammate of McCamey's at St. Joseph's in Westchester. Of course, I'm talking about Evan Turner. All Turner did was miss a triple double by just 2 assists, as good of an all-around game as you're bound to see all season in the Big Ten, if not the country. But it just wasn't Turner who stymied the Illini. David Lighty seemed to have his way with running the floor, and the deadeye aim of Jon Diebler certainly didn't help matters any. As the players commented after the game, this is one just to forget and move on, because there is still a lot to play for.

So, where does this leave the Illini? As of the time of this blog entry, the Illini stand at 17-9 overall and 9-4 in the Big Ten standings, firmly entrenched in a tie for fifth place. The way things look right now, those numbers should be good enough for the Illini to secure a first round bye in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis next month. However, the road for the Illini is still packed with some of the top teams in the league, and over the course of the remaining 5 games, they play in order: at Purdue, at Michigan, home versus Minnesota, at Ohio State and at home against Wisconsin. Definitely not out of the woods yet, but realistically, you could see at least 2 wins in that group. Going into the final 8 game stretch, there were some national media people who said that Illinois wouldn't win any of those games, but so far, they are 2-1 in that stretch. Now, looking further ahead to the NCAA Tournament, the picture doesn't appear as rosy. As of now, the Illini's RPI stands at 70, which normally won't get you in the field of 65. Say the Illini go 2-3 over those final 5 games aforementioned above, they would be 19-12 overall and 11-7 in conference play. I don't believe that a Big Ten team that has gone 11-7 has ever missed the field, but 19-12 just doesn't seem to warrant a spot in the tourney, in my honest opinion. To have a legitimate shot and feel good about their chances come Selection Sunday, I think they would need to go 3-2 over this final stretch, and win at least 1 game in the Big Ten Tourney. This scenario would give them a 21-11 overall record and a 12-6 conference record, numbers that still don't look great, but appear better than the first option. It is evident that the losses to Bradley and Utah in Las Vegas are looking huge right now, as is the loss to Georgia. Also, the Gonzaga defeat should have been theirs for the taking, so if those games somehow were reversed, we are not even having this conversation right now.

Back to the present now. With the Illini idle this week, they have a chance to recuperate and get ready for Purdue on Saturday afternoon (3:00 pm central time, ESPN). The Boilermakers came to Champaign in the middle of January and beat the Illini 84-78, so they will be looking for revenge over their neighbors to the east. But beating Purdue on their home court will not be an easy task. Sure, the Illini did it last season, but this Purdue team is more talented and have a lot more weapons to utilize too. The Boilermakers come into the game ranked #4 nationally in both the AP, as well as the ESPN/USA Today polls. If the Illini can find a way to knock off Purdue, and that is a big if, it will go a long way in the discussion regarding RPI and NCAA Tournament talk. Coach Bruce Weber and the players are only concerned for the moment with the next game, and so media people such as myself will speculate about what lies ahead beyond this weekend.

Now that the football coaching staff seems to be in place, it's time for individual workouts to begin. Spring practice will commence soon enough, and this will give the players a chance to work with their new position coaches, and will give the coaching staff a chance to get acclimated to each other. Something interesting to watch as spring practice unfolds will be the quarterback battle. There seem to be 3 players in the mix for the successor to Juice Williams, and as of right now, Jacob Charest has the early edge since he is the only one with game experience. However, look for redshirt freshman Nathan Scheelhaase and true freshman Chandler Whitmer to make it a battle royale. This one should be fun to watch. Also on the football news front, those Illini fans that have been complaining for years that there are not enough home games in a season, your needs have been met! It was announced last week that for the 2011 season, there will be 8 home games. The first 5 games of the year will all be at Memorial Stadium, which will give the Illini an advantage and also a chance to get a good start out of the gate. Let's hope that the product on the field warrants that start.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Game Day in town!

Ok, the easy part is over, and now comes the really difficult stretch for Bruce Weber and the Fighting Illini men's basketball team. With a conference schedule that was front loaded with some easy games, the Illini have made the most of it by going 7-3 through the first 10 games of Big 10 play, but a juggernaut of toughies await, starting with Michigan State (8:00 pm, Saturday ESPN). The game against the Spartans is big on many fronts, the first and most obvious reason being the presence of ESPN and their Game Day crew being in Champaign for the game. Out of 343 Division 1 schools that play college basketball, only 8 teams get the designation of being selected as a destination of Game Day. This year, Champaign and the University of Illinois is one such lucky school. But, first the matter at hand is to find a way to defeat the Spartans, who are on top in the conference this season with a 9-1 mark. They were defeated quite handily at Wisconsin earlier in the week, and in addition to losing the game, may have lost their point guard and Big Ten player of the year candidate Kalin Lucas to a sprained ankle. Lucas let go a shot outside the arc, and came down hard on the ankle, and is currently listed as day-to-day. Ouch! Generally with a high ankle sprain, those take a little longer to heal, but Lucas is resilient, so we'll see if he plays against the Illini. You never wish an injury on anyone, and if the Illini are to defeat the Spartans, I would like to see them do it at full strength. I have the utmost respect for Coach Tom Izzo and the Michigan State program in general, but if this injury is worse than projected, then the Spartans may have just brought themselves down to the level of everyone else in the league. After the Michigan State game, the Illini go to Wisconsin (Feb. 9), play Ohio State at home (Feb. 14), then Purdue on the road (Feb. 20), followed by a trip to Michigan to play the Wolverines, who are always tough at Crisler Arena. Yikes! That is a tough stretch of games, and earlier losses to Utah, Bradley and Georgia are really starting to look bad now when it comes to talking about the NCAA Tournament. That is why it is imperative for the Illini to take care of business at home and try to steal 1 of the upcoming road games. This is a task that seems monumental, and for intensive purposes, it probably is. I still think that the Illini can go 4-4 over the final 8 games of the Big Ten schedule and still get in the Big Dance, provided that they win at least 1 game in the Big Ten Tournament. But, maybe I'm getting a little ahead of myself. The task at hand is the Spartans.

Did I mention the Game Day crew is in town? The bus rolled into campus on Monday, and I was fortunate to get a tour of the bus, meet the driver, and ask questions about how life is inside this coach. Inside are at least 8 or 9 flat screen televisions that the crew of Rece Davis, Hubert Davis, Jay Bilas and Digger Phelps use to watch games to pass the time away when they are not doing their live, "on location" shows, one of which will take place this Saturday at the Assembly Hall. Since it is a rare opportunity to have the Game Day experience here in town, who knows when it will come back, if it ever does! The event on Saturday is free and open to the public. Doors will open at 8:00 am, with the first people through the door getting the best chance to be on television. They will fill in the west side of the hall behind where the crew will do their live show, then spread out from there if the need arises. Last week the crew was in Manhattan, Kansas where they set the record for attendance with over 8100 fans. I'm not saying that Illinois will break the record, but we have an opportunity to do so. The show will air live from 10-11 on Saturday morning, then before the Illini tip it off with Michigan State later that evening, they will do another 1 hour live show recapping the day's activities and other games from around the country. Given the history of the relationship between the Illinois program and Digger Phelps, this should be interesting. As of now, there are no plans for Bob Knight, who sometimes is a member of the crew, to be in town. Wouldn't THAT be something? And our old friend Dick Vitale will be broadcasting the game that evening with Dan Shulman and Erin Andrews as sideline reporter. Oh, what fun!

Wednesday was football letter of intent signing day for schools all over, and the Illini signed 20 players to the program. Since the overhaul of coaches in the off-season, the recruiting kind of went a different way than originally planned. A lot of commits backed out at the last minute due to varying reasons, and the new coaches that came in tried to fill needs in their respective units. One of the more notable signees, Chandler Whitmer, is already enrolled in school and will battle immediately for the quarterback spot with Nathan Scheelhaase and Jacob Charest. The face of the program for the last few years, Juice Williams, is gone now, so a new face will need to emerge. But, who will that person be? Looking at this class from a talent perspective, there isn't really anything that jumps right out at you. In the Big Ten as a whole, the Illini's class has been ranked dead last. Coming off a 3-9 season, that doesn't bode well for the future. Instead of battling it out with the likes of Florida and Ohio State for some of these players, Marshall and Arkansas State is more along the lines of the caliber of some of these players. I don't care who you are, that's not going to win you many games and turn around a program that has been once again driven into the ground. Players want to go somewhere that they will be successful, both from a personal and team standpoint. Clearly, Illinois is not headed in that direction. I really can't see the Illini any better than 6-6 for the 2010 season. I hope I'm wrong, but the facts don't lie.