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.
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.