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, January 25, 2011

Illini Basketball: Up and Down

So it goes for Bruce Weber and his Fighting Illini basketball team. They are a team of ups and downs, and night in and night out, they are like a box of chocolates: you never know what you are going to get. This team has shown flashes of brilliance (see Gonzaga, Michigan State), as well as moments of total destruction (re-live UIC, Penn State) during this season, and some drama has been added as of late just for good measure. Over the last 4 games, the Illini are just 1-3, but some will say that a moral victory was achieved in the last defeat, a 73-68 setback to top-ranked Ohio State. What disturbs me more about this loss is the fact that the Illini had an 8 point lead in the second half, and frankly let it slip away during the last 10 minutes of the game. Freshman Jereme Richmond (more about him in a moment) had his best game yet as an Illini, notching his first double-double of his young collegiate career with 18 points and 10 rebounds, and ended the week with his two best games yet. This is coming off a tumultuous week for Richmond, who left the team briefly to take care of a personal matter at home. Or so we were led to believe. More pieces of this saga are beginning to surface, and it appears now that Richmond was considering transferring because of not playing as much as he thought he deserved. We may never know the real reason why he did not travel to Wisconsin when the Illini played the Badgers, but he did drive up to Madison with his parents and since that little ordeal, has played much better. Given the recent improvement in Richmond's game, I believe he has deserved to crack the starting rotation, which still hasn't happened. Weber has his detractors, and I have been known to defend him in this blog, as well as in casual conversation. However, I must shake my head at some of the decisions that he has orchestrated lately. For instance, continuing to start Bill Cole, as well as some of the other seniors, when in fact they haven't warranted being in that role lately. Another one just happened on Sunday against the Buckeyes, when Weber mentioned in the postgame interview room that he asked the team in the huddle who wanted to take the last shot to try to beat the Buckeyes. Isn't that the coach's job to make that decision? After all, this isn't the movie Hoosiers, and we don't have someone like Jimmy Chitwood who said he wanted the ball. Instead, Cole said he would take the shot, and when he couldn't get open to take said shot, they went inside to Tisdale, and a turnover resulted, which basically ended the game. Weber has been taking a lot of heat lately, and I think it might actually be starting to get to him. Since the Final Four year, the Illini have won just one NCAA Tournament game, and have missed the big dance twice in that span. Plus, those were Bill Self recruits, and even though the recruiting has been on the upswing in the past couple of years, they are still unproven and attitudes probably won't change until the Illini are back in the tourney and can win a game or two. The Illini can take the next step toward that on Thursday night when they travel across the border to Bloomington to battle the Indiana Hoosiers (8:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network). The Illini have been suspect of playing to the level of their opponent, and with the Hoosiers still down, this is a very important game for Weber and his team to make a statement. The Hoosiers have already lost Maurice Creek for the season, and may be without former Champaign Central standout Verdell Jones III when they battle the Illini. The Illini enter play with Indiana at 14-6 overall and 4-3 in Big Ten action. Yes, folks, there is still time, but it must start with a big win over Indiana. No doubt about it.

The Illini football team enjoyed some success at the end of their 2010 season, as they defeated Baylor in the Texas Bowl, but it apparently has come with a price. Three of the top underclassmen have decided to forego their senior seasons and instead test the NFL waters. The first to announce was running back Mikel Leshoure, who set numerous records for the Illini, including the school record for rushing yards in a game at Wrigley Field in Chicago. Also going pro are linebacker Martez Wilson and defensive lineman Corey Liuget, both of whom enjoyed success with the Illini last season. In a way, you cannot blame them for making the jump, because with a possible lockout looming in the league, now might be the best time to go. Coach Ron Zook will undoubtedly miss these guys next season, and the list of incoming recruits is not as impressive as it has been in the past, but it could be worse. I believe that the bowl victory will carry some weight in that area, but it may be a couple of years until the benefits are seen. The coaching staff overhaul that was done before the season began looks even larger now, and hopefully they will be able to build on what they have started. With signing day less than 2 weeks away, the class of 2011 will be announced and the pieces will more than likely fall into place. What remains to be seen is if those pieces are large enough to fill the void left by the trio that could have returned. We shall see.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Welcome to 2011

2010 didn't end very well on several Illini fronts, however, both the Illini men's basketball and football teams finished the year with victories, on the same day nonetheless. Amid speculation that they would go down to Houston and lay the proverbial egg in front of what was to be a pro-Baylor crowd, the Illini quieted their critics by dismantling the Bears 38-14, as Mikel Leshoure continued his assault on the record books by rushing for 184 yards and 3 touchdowns. Working at a disadvantage because of playing a Texas team in their home state, it didn't seem to bother the Illini all that much. Baylor, who was playing in their first bowl game since 1994, seemed to have the edge with their outstanding quarterback Robert Griffin III. Griffin, who came into the game as the fifth most prolific passer in the country, did pass for 306 yards and a touchdown, but his two early fumbles in the first half gave Illinois all they needed to jump on top and pretty much stay there for the entire game. The Illini assured themselves of a winning season at 7-6 with the victory, and also could very well see extensions come to fruition for Coach Ron Zook and several of his assistants. Herein lies the problem. Does Zook warrant an extension? After all, this was just the Illini's 3rd bowl appearance since the 2001 season, which isn't a very good track record. But, I am sure that there will be a reworking of the contract at some point, and I won't be surprised when it does happen.

After a pair of demoralizing losses before Christmas, Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini men's basketball team have righted the ship, and are out to a perfect 3-0 start in Big Ten play, including a big win over a top 25 team in Wisconsin. After starting out conference play at Iowa on the same night as the football team's bowl win against Baylor, the Illini got much needed wins against the Badgers and Northwestern. In the game against the Wildcats, the Illini couldn't do much wrong at all and finally played the way everyone expected them to play for much of the season. It may have been that Weber gave them a wake-up call after the losses to UIC and Missouri, or simply the fact that the players felt embarrassed and wanted to make a statement. Well, they did against Northwestern, shooting a blistering 70.5% from the field for the game, which was an Illinois record for field goal shooting in a game. The first half alone the Illini only missed 4 shots, enroute to a lead that they would never relinquish. However, the next stretch of games will be a tell-tale sign as to how good this Illinois team is. With games on the road at Penn State (Tuesday, 8:00 pm, Big Ten Network) and then a rematch with Wisconsin next Saturday, followed by home games with Michigan State and Ohio State, the possibility of remaining undefeated in conference play seems a stretch at best. Currently the Illini are 13-3 overall and still perfect in the Big 10 at 3-0. Penn State will be coming in on a high note after upsetting Michigan State at home over the weekend. We shall see how it transpires.

Finally, what in the world is going on with the women's basketball program at Illinois? It seems like the program is going in reverse after their latest setback, an overtime heartbreaker to Northwestern 69-66 on Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall. They still are not drawing very big crowds, so not a lot of people are seeing this destruction occur. Jolette Law means well, but with all of the suspensions and eventual transfers from the program, you wonder if she is just Theresa Grentz lite. I seriously think that athletic director Ron Guenther missed the boat badly on this hire, because in order to build this program back up to respectability, you first need to put a team on the floor that is going to put people in the seats. At this rate, they wouldn't fill up one side of Huff Gym with the crowds they have been seeing. Plus, at 6-10 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, a trip to a postseason tournament seems very unlikely at this point. Maybe things will improve, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.