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.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Illini, we have a bowl game!

At long last, the news is official. The Illini will be heading south later this month to play in the Texas Bowl in Houston. The Illini finished the regular season at 6-6, losing at Fresno State by the slimmest of margins 25-23. Most of the speculation about where the Illini were going already pretty much had been decided, but the official word came down last Sunday. The Illini will be facing the Baylor Bears, who haven't been to a bowl themselves since 1994. Baylor finished the regular season 7-5, and feature a prolific offense, led by quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin completed 274 of 413 passes on the season for 3,195 yards and threw 21 touchdowns. He also rushed for 8 touchdowns on the year, making him as durable of a threat on the ground as he is in the air. The Illini have had some problems containing high-powered offenses during the regular season, and this Baylor team will be no different.
But, just how exciting is everyone feeling about this upcoming bowl trip? This is not one of the marquee bowl games to begin with, and the fact that it is in Houston might make it more difficult for some fans to attend. One good thing going for the Illini is that the game is the only one being played on that day, so the whole country will be watching. That could be both good and bad.

Still, this is a positive note for the Illini to even be playing this late into December. According to Coach Ron Zook, it gives the team some extra practice time that they normally wouldn't be getting. Also, it gives the players some exposure and a chance to shine in playing an extra game. The Illini haven't been to a bowl game since the 2008 season, when they went to the Rose Bowl. But does this Illini team deserve the distinction of playing in a bowl game? After all, their season has been less than impressive, and at times the Illini have looked absolutely dreadful (see Minnesota). But, it is what it is, and the Illini contingent will descend on Houston after Christmas ready to play. The question is, will the fans follow?

The Fighting Illini men's basketball team ended a very successful week, defeating North Carolina at home and going on the road to defeat Gonzaga. After the defeat of the Zags, the Illini faced a sure trap game, when the Grizzlies of Oakland University came to the Hall. The game started out very bad for the Illini, as they fell behind by double figures early on. What was really strange about the whole game was what happened at the 12:38 mark of the first half. Apparently a women's ball got onto the rack of balls that were going to be used, and that one was in play for the first part of the game. Illini guard Demetri McCamey tried to point it out to the officials on several occasions before they actually discovered it, but to no avail. When they finally switched the balls out, the Illini began to take control, on the heels of McCamey, who scored 30 points. McCamey scored 23 of his points in the second half, including 11 straight to turn the entire momentum of the game. The Illini ended up winning 74-63 to run their record to 9-1 on the season. The Illini will take on the Bears of Northern Colorado on Sunday at the Assembly Hall (5:00 pm, CT - Big Ten Network). This will be the last tuneup game for the Illini of the fall semester. I think so far, this Illini team is playing the way I expected them to play, and the emergence of Jereme Richmond is not far off. The freshman has shown flashes of brilliance early on, and should crack the starting lineup before long. The next stretch of games will finish o
ff the non-conference portion of the season and then the Big Ten season, an entirely different animal altogether, will be on the horizon.

Saturday was a big day at the Assembly Hall for Illini fans as the 5th annual Shootout At The Hall took place, featuring several committed players for next season, as well as some other players that are being looked at by Bruce Weber and his staff. There were seven games on tap for the day, featuring some local teams, as well as some from a distance. The first game of the day had two area rivals going at it, the Unity Rockets and the St. Joseph-Ogden Spartans. Separated by just a few miles between borders, the kids in each district know each other, and in some cases, even date each other. It used to be a big rivalry when the teams were in the same conference, but now that they are no longer in the same league, the rivalry has taken a bit of a back seat. The Rockets used a strong fourth quarter to outscore the Spartans 13-0 to win going away 47-29.

The second game of the day saw two Cornbelt Conference teams go at it as Rantoul took on Pontiac. Rantoul, who has a player that is getting some Division looks named Travis B
ritt, played pretty well all through the game, and even though Pontiac took the game into overtime, the Eagles still ended up winning 58-54. There is no doubt that when those two teams meet on the court later in the season during the Cornbelt season, there will be revenge on the minds of the Indians.

Game three of the shootout saw Springfield Lanphier take on Peoria Manual. Lanphier, who has a freshman named Larry Austin Jr. that is on the Illini staff radar screen, had their way for most of the game with Manual, and defeated the Rams 65-58. Manual, long a player in the bigger schools in the past, has scaled down their enrollment significantly, but still have some guys that can play. From the school that produced the likes of Sergio McClain, Marcus Liberty, and Jerry Hester, all Illini standouts, they gave the Lions all they could handle. The Rams are coached by Derrick Booth, who pl
ayed at Manual and collegiately for DePaul, and will have his team ready to play after this game.

The fourth game of the day featured one of the 3 Illini commitments for next season in 6'8 forward Nnanna Egwu of Chicago St. Ignatius, who took on Peoria Notre Dame. Egwu, who will be asked to step in for Bill Cole or Mike Davis when they graduate after this season, spent a lot of the time on the bench in foul trouble, and that evidently hurt his team's chances, as they ended up losing the game 48-46. Notre Dame, who has a player that is being coveted by Illinois for preferred walk-on status, Max Bielfeldt, won the game on a very questionable call. With just three seconds remaining, an intentional foul was called on St. Ignatius, sending Bielfeldt to the free throw line. He drained both attempts, then Notre Dame stole the inbounds pass to seal the victory. I have to agree with the St. Ignatius coach that it was not a good time to call an intentional foul, but it i
s what it is, and that was the ball game.

Game 5 on the day featured Bowman Academy of Gary, Indiana versus Chicago Mt. Carmel, and Illini signee Tracy Abrams. Abrams is set to assume the point guard duties next season once Demetri McCamey graduates in May. Bowman Academy has a player that is on the Illini radar screen in DeJuan Marrero, who is a 6'5 junior. Abrams runs the floor pretty well and should be a good addition to the Illini next season. The Caravan have another player named Malcom Hill-Bey who is a good player, too, so they should be a team to watch come March. This one went down to the wire, as most of the games have today, with Mt. Carmel coming out on top 63-60.

The sixth game of the day featured another Illini signee, Mychael Henry of Chicago Orr, facing the shootout's furthest participant, Lee H.S. from Huntsville, Alabama. Lee played on Friday night in a tournament in Marion, Illinois, and made the trek up here to play in the Shootout At The Hall. Devin Langford, who is high on the Illini, plays for Lee, and rumor has it that it is just a matter of time before he makes his decision official to play for the Illini next season. O
rr beat Lee 67-58, as Henry scored 32 points, making an impression on those in attendance.

The final game of the night featured two more local teams, St. Thomas More and defending 1A champ Salt Fork. Due to my being there all day for the games, I didn't stick around for this game, but I was told that Salt Fork won the game 46-33. Quite a day of high school basketball!

The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team saw their season come to an end where they had already won a match earlier in the season. The Illini fell in 5 sets, ending their season at 24-9, making the third consecutive year that they have advanced to the Sweet 16.

Finally, on Monday, the Big Ten unveiled their new logo for the conference, as well as the names of the divisions for the teams once Nebraska joins the league in 2011. Personally, the powers that be that developed this logo could have done much better in the creativity department. It is a generic logo, that, according to commissioner Jim Delaney, is targeted to go back to th
e basics. The logo (at right), gets rid of the embedded 11 in the old logo, and goes back to the '10', with an open end of the G in Big, symbolizing an 0 that leaves the imagination open. The division names are an entirely different matter altogether, and whoever came up with them needs to seriously reconsider their choices. The Legends Division, comprising Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Nebraska and Northwestern, makes it sound like those schools are has-beens. The Leaders Division, featuring Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Wisconsin and Penn State, give one the idea that these schools are in the driver's seat for conference supremacy. Why not just call them East and West? This is rather ridiculous in my opinion, and the Big Ten ought to be embarrassed about this. However, the conference also announced 18 new trophies to be handed out for post-season awards, some of which are pretty clever names. Those can be found at the conference's website www.bigten,org

That's all for this week.