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, October 26, 2010

What a difference a few months make. At the beginning of the year, nobody really knew what the Illini football team would be like, but so far, after 7 games in the books, it has been a pleasant surprise. Now, they are just 4-3 in those games, but when you consider who the 3 losses were to, it makes the success of this team that much more evident. Missouri, who was the Illini's first loss of the season, is 7-0 and just defeated Oklahoma, who was ranked #1 in the country. The Tigers check in at #8 in this week's USA Today/ESPN Top 25 coaches poll. Ohio State, who dealt the Illini their second defeat of the season, was ranked #1 for a week themselves, and at 7-1, are ranked 10th in this week's poll. The third team to beat the Illini this season, Michigan State, is also undefeated at 8-0 and are currently ranked #5 in the nation. What does all of this mean? Well, for starters, the 3 losses that Illinois has endured have all been quality losses, and certainly will help their cause, should they become bowl eligible. That will happen in 2 more wins, which would be a major accomplishment, given projections at the beginning of the season. So, how do the Illini get those 2 wins to become bowl eligible, you say? Well, for starters, beating Purdue on Saturday will help (11:00 am, ESPN2). Out of the remaining games left, Minnesota and Northwestern stand the best chance of being that elusive sixth win. But don't ask Ron Zook or his players about bowl eligibility, because they are not focusing on it. Not now. They are just taking one game at a time, which is the way it should be. They cannot get too concerned with going to a bowl, because if they do, then that becomes the focus and they lose sight of what is in front of them. Purdue comes into the contest with the Illini at 4-3 as well, but a notch better than the Illini in Big Ten play at 2-1. The Boilermakers are having some injury issues of their own, as starting quarterback Robert Marve was lost for the season a few weeks ago, and redshirt freshman Rob Henry took over the starting job. However, Henry, too, suffered an injury in Boilers' 49-0 loss to Ohio State, so true freshman Sean Robinson may end up starting against the Illini. Zook doesn't know who will start, so he is preparing for both of them, just to be safe. Robinson is not a stranger to Zook, as he was recruited by Illinois, but ended up signing with Purdue. Robinson is from Rochester, Illinois. If the defense continues its stellar play as of late, the Illini will inch ever closer to becoming eligible for a bowl. But don't tell Zook that I said that.

Since the 2004-05 Fighting Illini basketball team that came one game from being crowned national champions has there been this much hype to begin a season. The Illini return essentially everyone from a team that just missed the NCAA Tournament a year ago, and bring in a talented freshman class that most certainly will test the veterans. Returning starters from a year ago include forward Mike Davis and center Mike Tisdale, while sharpshooting guards Demetri McCamey and D. J. Richardson return to the lineup as well. All but Richardson are seniors, but the hardly matters to coach Bruce Weber, who has just as much talent on this year's team than the Final Four team. The major story for this team, however, are the 3 freshmen who will be making their debuts for the Illini this year. Much hearalded recruit Jereme Richmond, who has been on board Bruce Weber's train since before he started high school, leads the pack, but is followed closely by 7'0 big man Meyers Leonard, who hails from downstate Robinson. Rounding this triumverate of talent is Crandall Head. Yep, that Crandall Head, the younger brother of former Illini Luther Head. These three players are already beginning to push the upperclassmen, which should lead to quite a battle once the season begins. Weber said on Tuesday that he may go with a different starting lineup each half of the exhibition game against Lewis University, just to try some different combinations. Also pushing for playing time are guards Brandon Paul and redshirt freshman Joseph Bertrand. Bill Cole, who started quite a few games last season after making major progress from the previous year, may start out in that role, but the position is essentially up for grabs and is anyone's for the taking. Finally, Tyler Griffey returns for his sophomore campaign, destined to keep making his mark. With all of this at Weber's disposal, a good season is forecast, which should create a lot of interesting battles for positions. Stay tuned.

The women's team will look remarkably different this year, as compared to last year. Gone are Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson to graduation, and Fabiola Josil is gone due to transferring from the school. The result of this is no seniors on the current roster, and a couple of incoming freshmen that could have an immediate impact. Juniors Eboni Mitchell, Lana Rukavina and Macie Blinn will anchor a young team that has a challenging schedule, one that head coach Jolette Law thinks will benefit them in the long run. Lydia McCully, Karisma Penn and Adrienne GodBold, who all saw significant minutes a season ago, also return to try and help the Illini get back to the NCAA Tournament, somewhere they haven't been since the 2002-03 season. The freshmen that will help get this team back on track are Centrese McGee and Alexis Burke, two talented players. Now the hope is that these young players will stay with the team and not leave to go elsewhere, which has been the case more over the past few seasons.

As if there wasn't enough going on around campus this weekend with basketball and football, there is also a volleyball team that is making some headlines as well. Kevin Hambly has the Illini in first place in the Big Ten, and they host a huge match on Friday night against Michigan, the only team to defeat the Illini in conference play this season. The Illini carry a 9-1 league mark into Friday's match with the Wolverines, and will also play host to the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday evening. Both matches are at Huff Hall and start at 7:00 pm.

There you have it, a busy, busy weekend of sports on the horizon. Get out and enjoy a game!

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

A Step In The Right Direction

Things are actually beginning to look up for Ron Zook and his Fighting Illini football team. Before Saturday's victory at Penn State, the Illini had never won in Happy Valley, and even though this is not your typical Penn State team loaded with star-studded talent, a win nonetheless, is still a win. The Illini took a big step with the victory over the Nittany Lions, but in the immortal words of Zook "they are still not where they want to be". Sure, the offense finally showed some signs of life, and quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase resembled the quarterback that everybody envisioned him to be, but Penn State is down from their glory years, and it appears that the talent level has fallen. Mikel Leshoure once again topped the century mark in rushing yards, and has made himself one of the players that other teams target when they prepare for this offense. Perhaps the most surprising element of this year's team has to be the defense, and it's major improvement over a season ago. Defensive coordinator Vic Koenning has done wonders with this unit, and I have said it before, and I'll say it yet again, that despite all the injuries to this unit, they have made significant improvements week in and week out. Before the season began, I didn't give this team much of a chance, thinking they would go 4-8 at best. Now, after 5 games, they have a winning record at 3-2, and the inevitable talk of the 'b' word has begun to surface. Yes, with upcoming games against Indiana, Purdue, Minnesota and Northwestern looming, the thought of a December or January game is a distinct possibility, providing that they can get 3 wins out of the final 7. Am I getting ahead of myself here? Perhaps. Will I be accused of "drinking the orange and blue kool-aid"? Possibly. My point here is that this team is better than I thought they would be, and better than most of Illini Nation figured on when Camp Rantoul began back in August. Of course, all of this could take a huge step backward if they go to Michigan State and lay an egg on Saturday (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). The Spartans are co-leaders of the Big Ten at 6-0 overall and 2-0 in league play, and are coming off a big win at the Big House in Ann Arbor over Michigan. Michigan State has endured some hardship in recent weeks, as their head coach, Mark D'Antonio, suffered a heart attack after the Notre Dame game, and has been off the job for a few weeks. That has not stopped them in their tracks, and D'Antonio should be back on the sidelines this week against the Illini. For the Illini to come away with another road victory and shock the nation, they need to keep doing the things they have been doing, and maybe even step it up a notch or two. After the Spartans, the schedule lightens a little bit with home games against Indiana and Purdue, then a trip back to Michigan to face the Wolverines. We shall see what happens.

That bouncing ball sound you hear? Must signal the start of basketball season for both the men and the women's teams at the University of Illinois. The teams held their annual media day festivities on Tuesday at the Ubben Sports Complex, and the assembled media got a chance to hear both Bruce Weber and Jolette Law speak about their teams, and interview the players on the men's team. There is a sense of excitement about Weber's 8th Illini team, and the team wants to remove the bad taste from last year's stinging defeat to the Dayton Flyers in the 3rd round of the NIT. A talented group of seniors, meshed with a sophomore class that saw a lot of action as freshmen a year ago will look to move the ball up and down the court. Add in a heralded group of freshmen, and this team has great potential to advance far in the NCAA Tournament. I know it is only October and the season is yet to officially begin, but based on intital reports and workouts, this team is athletic and will be flexible enough to move players in and out of the lineup with relative ease. Your first look at this year's Illini squad comes on Friday night at Huff Hall, when "Illini Basketball Madness" takes center stage. The event, which is free to the public, will begin a little after 10:00 pm, after the volleyball match against Purdue. The arena will be cleared after the volleyball match, then doors to Huff will open at 10:00. Fans that attend the volleyball match will be given first chance to get back in line to get the best seats for the basketball event, and some of the items on the agenda for the evening include a three-point shooting contest, a slam dunk contest, and a scrimmage featuring the men's team. You will want to get there early, because when Huff Hall reaches capacity, there will be nobody else admitted. Why hold the event at Huff you ask? Huff Hall is a more intimate environment, and the DIA wants to create an atmosphere for the fans and recruits on hand. There are a lot of future Illini expected to attend, as well as potential recruits as well. Maybe even a few surprises too! This event is a showcase of the program, and holding it at the Assembly Hall just doesn't offer the intimacy that Huff does. Regardless, it should be a good environment and I am looking forward to seeing Jereme Richmond in the slam dunk event. Be looking for an official preview of both the men's and women's teams coming in the next couple of weeks to the Illini Guy Report.

Now, on to volleyball. If Coach Kevin Hambly didn't have bad luck, he'd have no luck at all. Senior Laura DeBruler, who missed several matches earlier in the season after a bout with mononucleosis, suffered a knee injury at Michigan last weekend, and will miss the remainder of the season with an ACL tear. DeBruler ends her Illini career ranked first in kills and attacks all-time at Illinois, and seventh all-time in digs. This loss is especially devastating to Hambly and the Illini, as they begin a crucial part of their Big Ten season, tied for first with Michigan (#15 nationally), and Northwestern (#20). On the docket for this weekend is Purdue on Friday night and Indiana on Saturday evening. Staying up at the top now is the main concern for the Illini as they work toward their goal of winning their first Big Ten volleyball title since 1992.

That's all I got for this week. More on these topics, including an official recap of the Illini Madness event will follow next week. Until then.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

October: Crossover month

October is here! Time for falling leaves, cooler temperatures, and the beginning of the crossover of sports seasons at the University of Illinois. Football season is in full swing, as is women's volleyball and soccer, and soon enough, both men's and women's basketball will commence, giving the typical Illini fan a plethora of events to pick and choose from. But, not to get ahead of myself, a quick review since my last entry.

The "History at Huff" event featuring the women's volleyball team hosting #2 Penn State was everything it was advertised about and much more. On that chilly evening a couple of weeks ago, the Illini did something that nobody had been able to do in 65 matches, and that was defeat the Nittany Lions in a match. In front of a packed house and a Big Ten Network television audience, the Illini took care of the Lady Lions in 5 games to finally break the stranglehold that Penn State had on the Big Ten. Not wanting to be outdone the next night, they swept Ohio State in 3 straight games to make a productive weekend that much more enjoyable. In a weekend that saw the football team enjoy a week off, Kevin Hambly's team took center stage, and lived up to the hype. Laura DeBruler, who had been out with mono for the past few matches, came back with a venegance to help lead the Illini to victory. Since that match, the Illini have defeated Wisconsin in Madison (4 games) and Northwestern (5 games) to run their record to 12-2 overall and in position to crack the top 5 in the national rankings. Up next, a trip to Michigan to play both the Wolverines and Spartans this coming weekend. Hambly has done a wonderful job thus far as bench boss, and the future continues to look up as they make their mark in the Big Ten.

After enjoying their bye week, the Fighting Illini football team welcomed the #2 ranked Ohio State Buckeyes to Memorial Stadium last Saturday, and despite the success that Illinois has had over the Buckeyes the past few years, nobody gave them much of a chance. Considering that the Illini have not beaten the Buckeyes in Champaign in nearly 20 years certainly didn't lend any credibility their way. You have to give credit to defensive coordinator Vic Koenning for getting his unit in a much better position this year to at least stay in games with teams instead of the other way around. After all, he hasn't had much to work with, what with injuries and defections. Still, the Illini made a valiant effort against the Buckeyes, but ultimately fell 24-13. There has been a lot of speculation about one particular play toward the end of the game, mainly a disagreement whether or not they should have gone for a first down, or tried the field goal, which is what they did. Zook's philosophy was to kick the field goal to get the points, rather than go for the first down and get the touchdown. They needed 2 scores anyway to win the game, and judging by how the offense has performed under these conditions, didn't see that happening. Plus, the Buckeyes could have gone right back down and scored a touchdown of their own, which is what eventually ended up happening. Now, I'm a proponent of not leaving points on the field, but in certain situations, you have to go for it and take your chances. Offensive coordinator Paul Petrino was quoted this week as well, saying he would have kicked the field goal. This statement leads me to believe that it was Zook's decision, and his alone, to make that call. Still, the Illini lost, and you cannot justify what would have happened if the other decision was made.

Up next for the Illini, a trip to Happy Valley for a meeting with the Penn State Nittany Lions and legendary coach Joe Paterno on Saturday morning (11:00 am, Big Ten Network). The Illini have never won in State College, and even though this is not one of the more powerful Penn State teams as in recent memory, it will still be a tough task. They have one of the conference's leading rushers of all-time in Evan Royster, and if the Illini don't figure out how to move their offense besides Mikel Leshoure, it could be a long day in PA.

The Illini women's soccer team is also enjoying a good season, currently sporting a 10-2-1 record as they go into Madison this coming weekend for a match against the Wisconsin Badgers. The Illini swept the Indiana schools last week, defeating Purdue (4-1) and Indiana (2-1) to stay near the top of the conference standings. Vanessa DiBernardo continues to lead the Illini in goals scored with 9, recording 4 of those against the Boilermakers and Hoosiers to garner Big Ten Player of the Week honors for the week.

October also signals the start of basketball season, and in these parts, expectations continue to run high for the men's team. It seems that, even during football season, all people want to talk about is basketball and what the team will do this season. Thankfully, Illini fans don't have much longer to wait for the answer to that question, as the official start to the season is slated for Friday evening, October 15 at Historic Huff Hall. The doors will open at 10 pm that evening after clearing the arena for the volleyball match, then once fans start coming in, will be able to come into Huff until it reaches capacity. Why not host it at the Assembly Hall, you say? Huff Hall is more compact, and thus, would be a better atmosphere than spacious Assembly Hall, which for some reason, never gets to capacity for such events. The evening will include a 3-point shooting contest, as well as the ever popular dunk contest. The night will conclude with a short scrimmage, signaling the official start of the first practice.

Not to be outdone, Jolette Law's women's basketball team will begin practice even earlier than Bruce Weber's men's team, taking to the court on Thursday, October 7. New rules permit womens programs to start 40 days before their first game, meaning the time is now for the Illini to begin workouts. However, Law will be looking for some leadership, as two of her leading scorers graduated in Jenna Smith and Lacey Simpson. A full preview of both hoops teams will be coming up in the coming weeks, so stay tuned for that.

Yes, October is here. Get out and support the Illini by getting to a game, or two....or three.