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.