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!

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