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, March 19, 2011

Long awaited matchup

I feel it befitting on the eve of one of the most anticipated matchups in recent Illini basketball lore to submit yet another blog entry. This would not be possible had it not been for the Illini getting it together on Friday night and playing the way everyone thought they would play in routing UNLV 73-62 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the BOK Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The Illini came out firing on all cylinders, as Mike Davis appeared to give his team some much needed energy in playing like he didn't want it to be his last game as an Illini. Davis had a stat line that was impressive, leading the Illini with 22 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. He also added to that line by dishing out 5 assists and getting 1 steal. This all coming in a spirited effort amid some controversy before the game involving a fellow teammate. What would this Illini season be without something going on involving promising freshman Jereme Richmond, who was once again held out of the game by Weber for "conduct detrimental to the team". Apparently Richmond got into a verbal altercation with another teammate after the Michigan loss in the Big Ten Tournament, and this caused Weber to bench him, which in turn started the rumor mill flying once again. Will he transfer? Is he suspended? Will he even play? Weber didn't call it a suspension, because after all, Richmond was dressed and on the bench. Judging by Richmond's actions during the game, it doesn't look like he is one that is considering a transfer. A couple of years ago, Weber had a similar altercation with Dominique Keller, and Keller was seen sulking on the bench. It is widely known that Richmond has an attitude, and can be thought of as a prima-dona, and that appears not to set well with the coaching staff. Richmond's status for Sunday's game against Kansas has not been decided as of yet. Which brings me to the matchup with the Jayhawks.

Illini fans, you are finally going to get your wish of going up against Kansas and former Illini coach Bill $elf, who bolted Champaign back in 2003 because Kansas was his "dream job" and he "dreamed of having an office on Naismith Drive in Lawrence". So much animosity has been derived at $elf over the years since his departure, and you cannot argue that he is a good coach and a good recruiter of talent. He left the cupboard at Illinois well-stocked when he departed, and so far, Weber hasn't been able to do much with the program since that time. Shortly after $elf was gone, Weber held a mock funeral for him, saying that $elf was gone and it was time to move on. Saturday in Tulsa, both coached addressed the issue, and it appears to now be water under the bridge. So now, the Illini get their long awaited matchup against the Jayhawks in the third round of the tourney, and the task is a mighty tough one at hand. First of all, Kansas is a very good team with a lot of weapons. They are a top seed in the tourney for a reason. Secondly, the Illini haven't exactly set the world on fire this year, playing good for 35 minutes of games, but having a hard time closing out teams. But, if the Illini are playing at the top of their game like they did on Friday against UNLV, the possibility of staying with Kansas is real. I'm not saying they can beat the Jayhawks, but we shall finally see how they stack up against them. This could be Weber's chance to get the last laugh against $elf, and possibly quiet some of his harshest critics. They get their chance in prime time on Sunday (7:40 pm, TNT- Direct TV Channel 245). In the NCAA Tournament, you never know what might happen. Stranger things have occurred, and it will be interesting to see how this one goes. Illini Nation will be watching with vigorous interest, as will I.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Poetic Justice?

So, it appears that the NCAA selection committee has a sense of humor after all. After a lackluster end to the regular season and a quarterfinal flop in the Big Ten Tournament, the Fighting Illini find themselves dancing in the NCAA tournament. It is the potential matchups that are most intriguing. First, to review a little bit. Bruce Weber had his team (so we thought) playing well the last few games of the season, winning games that they were expected to get at home against Iowa and Indiana, and losing road games at Ohio State and Purdue, which were not expected to be wins. The regular season ended with the Illini at 19-12 overall, and in a four-way tie at 9-9 in the Big Ten standings. By virtue of the tie-breaker system, the Fighting Illini earned the fifth seed, and faced off against #4 seed Michigan, who also finished 19-12 overall and in that tie with the Illini. Normally these 4-5 matchups are toss-ups, and the Illini had defeated the Wolverines in their only meeting of the season 54-52 back on February 16th in Champaign, a game that the Illini were lucky to win. The Illini started off on the short end against the Wolverines, but battled back and actually took control near the end of the half, leading 34-23 at the break. That is where things literally fell apart. As has been all too common this year for the Illini, they play well for 30 minutes, then falter down the stretch. Friday's game against Michigan was no exception, as the undersized Wolverines whittled away at the Illini lead, and eventually took control. Many of the people over at Conseco Fieldhouse were looking around at each other, wondering what was going on. But, in all actuality, we have seen this story before, all too many times. Before the Illini had knew what hit them, the 11 point lead evaporated and Michigan kept making their shots, while the Illini were not connecting on theirs. The result was yet another defeat that could have been avoided, something that this 2010-11 Illini team is no stranger to. Some blame the coach, and rightly so. After all, he was handed the keys to a luxury car when Bill $elf left and in the process, has managed to wreck that vehicle in the span of 5 short years. Yes, he finished runner-up in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, but that was with $elf's players. The players themselves have also been blamed, and you cannot disagree with that sentiment either. This senior laden bunch has underachieved, and at times, it looks as if they just don't care about being out on the floor. A nice group of guys doesn't necessarily mean that they can play well, and often they appear to lack toughness. So what can be done about this? It might be too late to be asking that question, but I'll give it my best guess.

After the loss to Michigan on Friday afternoon, I had this sick feeling to my stomach, a feeling that I hadn't had in quite a while since covering this team. Part of me wondered what was going on, and the other part of me realized that this is the way it has been all season, so why was the other half of me even worrying about it anyway? So, I continued to watch basketball on into the evening, seeing Michigan State upset Purdue, and Penn State bounce Wisconsin from the proceedings. That didn't make me feel any better, and I'm sure the team didn't feel the best either, since they were the ones that caused this dilemma in the first place. So, we waited for Selection Sunday, in hopes that the Illini would still be considered for an at-large berth in the "Big Dance". Most bracketologists had the Illini in no matter what, but I wasn't 100% sold on the idea. During the announcing of the brackets, Penn State popped up as a #10 seed, and my feeling got a little worse. After all, the Nittany Lions had made it all the way to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament, where they were schooled by Ohio State. Then Michigan came up, which was to be expected. Could the Big Ten get 7 teams in the dance? Would Illinois be left out again?

Then, the Southwest bracket was unveiled with Kansas as the top seed. The very next seeding line featured UNLV as an 8 seed, which was followed by the Illini in at #9. The Illini face the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV in the second round of the tournament on Friday night in Tulsa, Oklahoma (approx. 8:20 pm central time, TBS). Oh great, I said. Excited to see the Illini in the field of 68, this now became what a friend of mine labeled the Illinois Invitational. You see, Lon Kruger, who coaches UNLV, was the coach of the Illini from 1998-2001, so there was a story line for you. To make matters even more intriguing, Kansas looms next for the winner of this game, featuring, you guessed it, Bill $elf as head coach of the Jayhawks. There still is some ongoing animosity toward $elf on the way he left Illinois for the Jayhawks' job, but in the last couple of years, I have allowed myself to let it go and realize that there is nothing I can do about it anyway. I would, however, like to see Illinois get a shot at Kansas to see how long we could stay with them. Think of how much Bruce Weber could recoup if he found a way to beat both the Runnin' Rebels and the Jayhawks? Still, it is good to see the Illini back in the field and here's hoping that the seniors can try to give it one final shot to make something of this season. They owe it to the fans, at least.

Get your dancing shoes on folks, because the madness is about to begin!

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's March!

The calendar says it is March, and that can mean only one thing: It's time for March Madness! College basketball enthusiasts of all shapes and sizes come together at this time of the year for conference basketball tournaments, and ultimately, the NCAA Tournament. This is the time of the year when teams can either make or break their seasons with one or two wins or losses.

The Fighting Illini are down to their final regular season game of the season, and to say that it is not a big game would be a serious understatement. In the past month or better, the Illini have resembled a team on a roller coaster ride (up, down, up, down). They have not been able to string back to back victories together in that time frame, but have been playing better basketball for the most part. Tuesday's loss at Purdue was encouraging, mainly for the level of intensity that the Illini exhibited, leading at one point by as much as 13 points. At that point, Coach Bruce Weber decided to sit Demetri McCamey after the senior picked up his second foul. Well, it could have been construed as a bad move, because the Boilermakers went on a 12-0 run during that stretch and closed the gap and eventually took a lead that they would never relinquish. The Illini will welcome the Indiana Hoosiers to the Assembly Hall in Champaign on Saturday (11:00 am, Big Ten Network), and enter play at 18-12 overall and 8-9 in the Big Ten. With the top 3 seeds virtually set for the upcoming Big Ten Tournament next weekend in Indianapolis, the logjam for spots 4-7 are still undetermined at this time. A best case scenario would pit the Illini against Michigan State in the #4-#5 game on Friday afternoon, but there are still a few games to be played, and there are tiebreakers that could come into play.

Saturday is also Senior Day, and this group of seniors that will be playing their final game in front of the Illini faithful have had their ups and downs this season. This group has not been the most talented bunch to wear the orange and blue, but they have shown flashes of brilliance as well during that time. In talking with the seniors on Thursday at Weber's weekly media teleconference, they all seem to have one common goal in mind, and that is to beat Indiana on Saturday. They know the significance of what a win would do, but they don't want to look too far ahead either. Mike Davis said that it is human nature to look down the road, but first thing's first, and the task at hand right now are the Hoosiers. Mike Tisdale, who fulfilled a dream in playing at Illinois, has come a long way since his days at small school Riverton, but never really gained the necessary weight to fit his 7 foot frame. Tisdale has looked lost at times this year, and hasn't used his size to the best of his ability. McCamey, who played in the shadow of high school teammate Evan Turner, and earlier this season was playing like he was a candidate for a high round pick in the NBA draft. However, McCamey hit a wall mid-season, and as a result, his stock dropped faster than an elevator out of control. He still has potential, and will have to show what he is made of if he wants a chance to play at the next level. The final senior is Bill Cole, and he is a player that is hard to describe. Virtually unused his first couple of seasons, Cole was pressed into a starting role in 2oo9-10, and performed admirably. Cole used that as a springboard and has started quite a few games this season as well. Coming from Richwoods High School in Peoria, Cole may not have been the best knife in Weber's recruiting drawer, but he fits the mold of the perfect Weber recruit: a marginal player that Weber gets the most out of. I think that this senior class had too much hype coming into the season, and when this year didn't go as the Illini expected it would, of course fingers were pointed and assumptions were made. Here's hoping that they can go out with a bang and not a whimper on Saturday.

To say that the Illini women's season has been a disappointment would not be far from the truth. Jolette Law's team finished dead last in the Big Ten, the first time that an Illini team had done so, even through the dreadful Kathy Lindsey era. The Illini finished the regular season at a horrendous 7-22 overall and just 2-14 in the league, including losing their last 12 regular season conference games. This didn't bode well for Law's team heading into the opening round of the Big Ten Tourney at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis against #6 seed Wisconsin. But, as has been the case for Law's tenure at Illinois, they once again pulled the upset, bouncing the Badgers 63-56 and living to see another day. Granted, some of the losses down the stretch were downright heartbreaking, but losses are still losses, and they piled up this season. The Illini will face the Michigan Wolverines in the quarterfinals on Friday afternoon (approx. 1:00 pm central time, Big Ten Network), and the only way that the Illini can see postseason play is to win out and capture the tourney title. A nice thought, but very unlikely to happen.

Enjoy the games, and rejoice basketball fans, March is here!