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.