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.