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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New York state of mind

Two down, and.........three to go? The Fighting Illini continued their run in the NIT Tournament with a convincing 73-58 win over the Kent State Golden Flashes on Monday night, and in the process, moved into the quarterfinals of the tourney and only need one more win to earn a return trip to New York, this time with a little more meaning. Rewind back to last week with me for a moment when the Illini traveled to Stony Brook, New York to battle the Stony Brook Seawolves on their home court, despite being given the #1 overall seed in the tourney. You see, a little thing called Cirq du Soleil was booked at the Assembly Hall, and Huff Hall on campus didn't have a regulation sized court. Plus, some goofy rule about games not being played at neutral sites in this tournament left no choice than to move the game to the opponent's floor, hence Stony Brook. This was a huge deal for the school, and they came out playing like it, too. But, in the end, the Illini were just too physical, and they eaked out a 76-66 victory, moving them into their matchup with Kent State.

Nobody was really excited to miss the NCAA Tournament and settle for the NIT, but there's an old adage that goes something like "when life gives you lemons, make lemonade". Can the same be said for apples? Or, in this case, The Big Apple? Spurned from the NCAA, the Illini made it their mission to play to win the NIT, and so far, they are holding up that claim. The next chink in the armor comes on Wednesday evening when the Illini host the Dayton Flyers (8:00 pm central time, ESPN2) in the third round, or as I like to call it, the quarterfinal round of the NIT. The winner of this game gets to play in Madison Square Garden in the Final Four. There are still some big names left in the NIT field, and the Illini have the possibility of running up against some of these teams down the road. They may even have some scores to settle with the teams for past meetings in the NCAA Tourney. Virginia Tech (2008 NCAA, loss), North Carolina (2005 National Championship, loss), and the game on Wednesday against Dayton (1982 NIT, loss and 1990 NCAA, loss). Previous records can be eliminated in these situations, but I thought it would still be fun to recount the past meetings that the Illini have had with the aforementioned schools and the sweet revenge that the possibility of winning an NIT Championship would be. Yes, I know it is not the "Big Dance", but it is still a trophy and all the players that I talked to after the Illini win on Monday night agrees with me.

Actually, the Illini have a chance to play on the parquet of MSG four times out of their next seven games, because the Illini will be in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic in New York coming up in November. When the season ended in Indianapolis and the Illini were left out of the 65 team NCAA field, Coach Bruce Weber told the guys that this NIT opportunity was similar to an early season tournament for next season. All they are losing are Dominique Keller, who has seen limited action the past few weeks, Richard Semrau, who is leaving the program at season's end and never was much of a factor this year, and spiritual leader Bubba Chisholm. There may be another one or possibly two that might not return, but essentially the Illini remain intact for the 2010-2011 season, plus they will be adding 3 players to the mix and also getting Joseph Bertrand back from his redshirt season. All the more incentive to play as a team and get better, so that when they season officially starts, they can pick up where they left off. Literally.

Uusally only 3 teams end up winning their last game of the season, the eventual NCAA Champion, plus the NIT Champ and third-place winner. The Illini can possibly lay claim to the latter two scenarios, and they are just one win away from getting a chance to do so.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Bracket Racket - Let The Madness Begin

Well, that wasn't the result that Illini Nation was expecting. After a valiant run in the Big Ten Tournament over the weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, the Illini found themselves on the outside looking in at the field of 65 as the brackets were unveiled on Sunday night. Still, this event is one of the highlights of my sports season, and not seeing Illinois pop up on the screen is, frankly, a little strange. Since Lou Henson departed as coach of the Illini, they have only missed the NCAA Tournament a total of 3 times in that span, and have not played in the NIT since 1996, which coincidentally was Henson's final game as coach of the Illini. Until this year. Since the Illini wasn't one of the 65 teams selected for the "Big Dance", they accepted a bid to play in the NIT, which is more commonly thought of as the little sister of the NCAA Tournament and may as well stand for such terms as "Not Invited Tournament" or "Not Interested Tournament". Whatever you wish to call it, the Illini are playing in it, and there is little anyone can do about it. Thanks to a scheduling conflict at the Assembly Hall (Circ du Soleil has the Hall booked for all of this week), the Illini have to hit the road in the first round, despite being given a #1 seed in the NIT.

So, where are they headed, you ask? To Stony Brook University (Wednesday, 8:00 pm ESPNU), which is on Long Island, New York (I had no idea where it was, so I had to look it up). This is the Seawolves' first ever post-season berth since becoming a Division 1 team 11 years ago, and the photo at the beginning of this blog shows the Pritchard Gymnasium, where the team has played their games while their other facility was being renovated. To say that this gym is small would be a gross understatement. Luckily, the venue that the game will be played in is about 5200 capacity, still a small crowd compared to what the Illini are used to playing in front of. The question I have about this is if the game is going to be held in a cracker box such as this, why couldn't the University use Huff Hall, which would have given the Illini a home game in the first round like is should be. According to Bruce Weber Huff isn't a legal court, so it couldn't be used. Not really sure that that means, or they could have moved the game to a neutral site closer to Champaign-Urbana so fans could actually attend the game and support the team. It is no secret that the Illini are disappointed to not be playing in the tournament with 4 letters, and to give them an assignment such as this in the first round tells me 1 of 2 things. They are either rewarding the Illini with a somewhat easy matchup, or penalizing them by putting them in the middle of nowhere and letting them travel sans fans to the contest. It is almost evident that a lot of fans won't bother to make the trip east, and the Illini fans fortunate enough to live near New York City will get the rare opportunity to see their team up close in a venue that may resemble a high school facility.

So, how did the Illini get themselves in this mess to begin with? Everything always seems to point back to the Las Vegas Invitational and the two games that were played in Sin City, which were both losses, and bad ones for the NCAA resume as a result. They knew it then, and those games kept showing up and looking worse as time went on. The Illini did have some quality wins throughout the season, with victories at Wisconsin, at Clemson, and at home against Vanderbilt and Michigan State. Couple those with another win over Wisconsin in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tourney and a double overtime loss to top-seeded and eventual tourney champ Ohio State in the semis, and the feeling was a little bit more relaxed. But, nobody saw what Minnesota was doing, and slowly, they knocked off Penn State on Thursday, Michigan State on Friday, and thoroughly embarrassed Purdue on Saturday to get to the championship game. This changed the view of things quite sharply and many thought that if it came down to Illinois and Minnesota, that Minnesota would get the nod. Well, in the end, that is exactly what happened. Minnesota's name was called on Selection Sunday, and the Illini's were not, and the snub has once again reared the 'Fire Weber' threads on message boards, which frankly, was expected.

If the Illini can get by the Seawolves, they would play their next two games at the Assembly Hall, but how many fans will actually show up to the games? Fans aren't excited about playing in the NIT, especially with the likes of North Carolina, Connecticut, Virginia Tech and Mississippi State in the field as well. The NIT bracket resembles a region or two of what would normally look like teams in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe the Big Dance should expand to 96 teams. That would probably make the NIT irrelevant, and we would not be having this discussion.

Regardless, enjoy the game and hope that the Illini can play another game in front of the home crowd.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Second Season

Ok, bracketologists, this week is dedicated to you. Championship week has arrived, the precursor to the unveiling of the 65 teams that will battle it out for the national championship next month. If you are a sports fan, especially a college basketball fan, then chances are you are in heaven this week. So much is on the line this week for so many teams, and that could not be more apparent for the Fighting Illini, who find themselves on shaky ground and square on the NCAA bubble. Not to say that they don't deserve to be where they are, because they have had some really bad losses this season and, to make matters even worse, haven't taken care of business over the past few weeks to solidify themselves a spot in the "dance". Yet, sitting at 18-13 overall as they head to Indianapolis to begin play in the Big Ten Tournament on Friday, there they are being talked about as one of the Lucky 65 that will be rejoicing come Sunday. Personally, I don't see this, because the Illini have really done nothing as of late to give me any indication that they belong in the field come Selection Sunday. Losing at home against Minnesota and Wisconsin during the critical stage of their season doesn't bode well, but who am I to say? That is the selection committee's job to seed these teams, and not mine. Thank goodness for that!

The Illini certainly will know their opponent in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament, because they just faced them last Sunday. The Wisconsin Badgers, probably still sore from the beatdown that the Illini gave them in Madison in February, came into the Assembly Hall with a score to settle and a point to prove. In the first meeting, the Badgers were without Jon Leuer, who was injured, but it didn't take long for the Illini to see that he was back. The game was pretty tight throughout, but once again the Illini fell behind by double digits and tried to make a valiant comeback, which fell short this time around. Demetri McCamey, who has carried the Illini through thick and thin this season, had another sub-par game, and even got into it with Coach Weber on the bench. Weber joked with reporters after the game saying it was all "hugs and kisses" between him and his star guard, and that it was a good teaching moment between a father and a son. Since Weber doesn't have any sons of his own, he probably makes those points evident through the players that he coaches. I have normally been a defender of Weber and some of the things that he does, but on Sunday, he did (or didn't do) some things that maybe could have swung the momentum in the other direction. At the end of the first half, with 2 fouls to give and trailing by 3, Weber could have called for fouls that would have essentially ran out the clock. Instead, he doesn't call for the fouls, and Keaton Nankivil buries a triple at the buzzer that put the Badgers up by 6. The Illini would get no closer than 5 in the second half, and will now limp into Conseco Fieldhouse needing at least 1 win, maybe more to feel good about their chances on Sunday.

Speaking of the Big Ten Tournament, the action kicks off on Thursday with 3 games, leading off with Michigan (8 seed) vs Iowa (9 seed) squaring off at 1:30 central time. After that game, Northwestern (7 seed) takes on Indiana (10 seed), followed by Minnesota (6 seed) battling Penn State (11 seed) to close out the action on the first day. Friday's action begins at 11:00 central time with the top seed Ohio State Buckeyes taking on the Michigan-Iowa winner. The Illini (5 seed) and the Badgers (4 seed) are the second game of the day, then after a little break, the evening session kicks in with the second seed Purdue taking on the winner of the Northwestern-Indiana game. Michigan State, the third seed, will face the winner of the Minnesota-Penn State game in the final game on Friday. The winners of those matchups will meet on Saturday afternoon with the championship game set for Sunday afternoon, just before the brackets are unveiled.

In closing this Big Ten Tournament edition of the "On Campus With The Illini Guy" blog, the Illini have had some good wins this season, namely on the road at Clemson, at home against Vanderbilt and Michigan State, and also the win at Wisconsin. However, bad losses in Las Vegas against Utah and Bradley, and the loss at Georgia sting at this point, while the loss at the United Center in Chicago against Gonzaga really would have put this team over the top, just have fans shaking their heads at this point. Is it enough? We shall see in a few short days. Enjoy the tournament folks, because you know I will!

Monday, March 1, 2010

Welcome To March Madness

It's here! That month on the calendar that has bracketologists everywhere up in arms. Yes, I'm talking about March Madness, that event that occurs every year around this time and for basketball purists like myself, is pure heaven. The Fighting Illini have endured a wicked stretch of games over the past couple of weeks, and all that is left now are two games, one on the road against Ohio State (March 2, 8:00 pm), and at home against Wisconsin (March 7, 11:00 am). Let's backtrack for a minute, to the beginning of this grueling cavalcade, shall we? When the Illini entered this 8 game mini-season, they were still trying to fins themselves and a lot of "experts" gave them no chance, many even going as far to say that they would not win any of the 8 games remaining. Well, the Illini have defied those pundits' beliefs with a 3-3 mark, which is about as good as you can expect. A win at home against Michigan State, who was without Kalin Lucas, and victories on the road against Wisconsin and Michigan, gave Illini fans hope for the postseason. However, home losses to Ohio State and Minnesota in this stretch, and a road loss to Purdue, have Illini Nation on pins and needles as they await the final two games of the regular season. As has been the mantra for this Illini team for most of the season, they fall behind a team and then try to make a valiant comeback effort, sometimes not being able to come back full circle. This was the case last Saturday, as the Illini dug themselves a hole against Minnesota, trailing by as much as 19 points during the contest, and then staging a thrilling comeback and almost pulling the game out. However, the Illini lost 62-60 to the Golden Gophers, and maybe the only person who would have been able to get the Gophers on that day was Carl Spackler himself. This is nothing new for this Illini team, spotting the other team a double digit advantage, but some teams you just cannot come back on. Saturday, Minnesota was one of those teams. Presenting matchup problems for the Illini from the start, the Illini just didn't have it in the first half, as they missed shot after shot, en route to only scoring 14 points in the half and a 10 point deficit. At times I have heard churches louder than the Assembly Hall was, but the play by the Illini gave the fans something to cheer about. It finally did get loud, but down the stretch, both Bill Cole and Demetri McCamey fouled out, leaving literally no floor leader to complete the comeback. The Illini had a good look at the final shot, but couldn't get it done. Jeff Jordan, with his dad in attendance, decided to pass off the final shot and got it to freshman D. J. Richardson, who missed the shot as time expired. His Airness would not have passed over that shot, and maybe it was a confidence thing with Jeff, but whatever the reason, the Illini went down to defeat.

So, where does this leave the Illini come Selection Sunday? Depends on who you talk to and what you look at. The loss to Minnesota certainly didn't help their chances, and my firm opinion is the Illini need to win at least 1 of the last 2 games, plus a win in the Big Ten Tournament to feel somewhat good about their chances. The Illini currently stand at 18-11 overall and 10-6 in Big Ten play as of the Ohio State game, which means that to get to that elusive total of 20, they will indeed have to win at least 1 of the remaining 2, plus win one in Indy at the conference tournament. But even then, it is not a given that the Illini are in. Many fans have been speaking their displeasure lately about Bruce Weber and his coaching abilities, and most of this banter has been coming from fans that are not too happy with the way he is coaching or even the current plight of the team. The Big Ten has been pretty tough this season, and certainly the Illini losses in Las Vegas to Utah and Bradley don't help the resume, but they have had some good wins this season as well, including wins at home against Vanderbilt, as well as road victories at Clemson and Wisconsin. I have seen the Illini anywhere falling between an 8 seed to an 11 seed, and that can certainly change over the final week of the regular season.

It was announced last week by Weber that Richard Semrau would not return for his fifth season, the one he received when he sat out as a medical redshirt. Semrau has been buried on the bench this year, and is pursuing a master's degree at the U of I and just thinks it is best that he not come back. He cited the lack of play and wanting to focus on his degree as the reasons for his decisions. I wish him well.

This has been another disappointing season for the Fighting Illini women's basketball team, and there has been some turmoil and controversy as well, starting with the departure of Destiny Williams earlier in the season. That being said, the tandem of Lacey Simpson and Jenna Smith, have played out their home careers with the Illini, and now Jolette Law's ladies venture to Indianapolis later this week to battle the Indiana Hoosiers in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament (Thursday, March 4 3:50 pm central time), on the Big Ten Network. All Smith has done has become the all-time rebounding and blocks leader in program history, and ended up second in career points. Simpson became the all-time steals leader, as well as the record for most games played as an Illini. Both will be sorely missed, and one wonders what direction the program is headed in with them two gone. Law was supposed to be this savior for the program and set it towards new heights. However, the Illini finished 15-13 in the regular season and 7-11 in the conference, and received the 9th seed in the conference tourney opposite the Hoosiers. Is there a run left in them as they gear up for Indy? Doubtful, but we shall see.

The Fighting Illini baseball and softball teams have begun their seasons, and the women's softball team is on fire out of the gate, starting out the season 14-1. They will next play on March 9 in Peoria against Bradley University. On the men's side, the baseball team is just 1-2 on the young season, and will compete in the Keith LeClair Invitational this weekend in Greenville, North Carolina. Teams that the Illini will face in this tournament will be Western Carolina, West Virginia, and the host East Carolina.