What's wrong with Illinois? That's a fair question, and one that has been asked recently on a number of occasions. It all starts back with the basketball season that just ended, precisely around the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. The Fighting Illini had many question marks this season, with a senior class that underachieved by most standards, and a coach that has lost favor with the fan base and now seems on the proverbial "hot seat". Add to this mess a much heralded freshman who had been orally committed to the program for all of his high school career. When the season began, Coach Bruce Weber had high expectations, and to show his confidence, had shirts made up with a slogan geared toward the Final Four in Houston. Yes, it's nice to have goals and all that, but what transpired few people could have predicted. The team finished 20-14 for the year, including a trip to the NCAA Tourney, where they defeated UNLV before losing to former coach Bill Self and Kansas 73-59. It's no secret that this team had plenty of talent, but they didn't play up to the level that they were capable of and in some cases, looked dreadful. Bad losses to UIC at the United Center and Indiana in Bloomington created doubt for many people, and left fans wondering just what was next for this squad. The season was not without controversy either, as prized freshman Jereme Richmond was in and out of Weber's doghouse all year long. This should not come as a surprise to many, because his high school career followed a similar path. Richmond took a voluntary leave of absence the week of the Wisconsin game in Madison, and actually drove himself up to rejoin the team after dealing with some "family matters". Then, to make matters worse, the week of the Big Ten Tournament Richmond was involved in a locker room incident with another player after the loss to Michigan and was suspended for the NCAA Tournament as a result. It is clear that Weber and Richmond didn't see eye to eye on many issues, and the fact that Richmond felt that he should have been a starter all season could have played into the mix as well. So, when the news broke last week that Richmond had decided to leave Illinois to enter the NBA draft didn't surprise many, including me. It has always been Richmond's dream to play in the NBA, as it is most anyone's that plays the game of basketball at the collegiate level. The question here is, will Richmond be ready? According to some scouts, he is projected to be a late first round or early second round selection, which makes his decision one that makes sense. Apparently, Richmond was not going to class, and was in danger of becoming ineligible, but the rifts between he and the coaching staff still remain the major issue, in my opinion. Yes, this leaves a hole for next season, but also gives a glimmer of hope that nobody will transfer, instead vying for those minutes with the rest of the incoming freshman class.
Wednesday was the spring signing period, and Weber was able to add two players to the incoming class of recruits. Devin Langford of Huntsville, Alabama was one of the recruits that was showcased at the Shootout At The Hall back in December. He is a 6'7 guard/forward, that might take some of the minutes that was vacated by either Davis or Richmond. The other player that Weber added was a bit of a surprise, but a good one at that. Sam Maniscalco, who played at Bradley last season, has graduated, but under a new provision can transfer to a school that has his field of study for graduate school without having to sit out a year. When Jim Les was fired at Bradley, that gave Maniscalco the idea that he wanted to get a fresh start somewhere else, and given his ties with the Illinois Wolves AAU program, was a perfect fit for the Illini. The addition of these two players brings the total of incoming players to six, with Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu, Michael Henry and Mike Shaw being the other four. Maniscalco's main role will be to play the point guard position, one that he did with good success over at Bradley. This will also give a temporary solution to the point issue that was facing Weber next season. With the departure of Demetri McCamey, it left the spot wide open, and was feared that Abrams would have to come in as a freshman and take the reins. Not so now, as Maniscalco will be more than qualified to ease Abrams into the quarterback of the offense for the 2012-13 season. Questions? Yeah, the Illini have plenty of them, and the one that remains the most intriguing will be what happens to Ron Guenther. Guenther's contract runs out in June, and if a new AD is named at that time, it might mean a possible coaching change down the road. Add to this the fact that some Illini assistants might be looking to further enhance their resumes as well, so a shakeup within the coaching staff is not a far-fetched idea either. At the annual season ending basketball banquet on Tuesday evening, Mike Davis was named team MVP, which was a good choice, since he was the most consistent of all the players this season. Yes, he had his moments just like all of the others, but towards the end of the season, it was evident that Davis cared and wanted to win more than anyone else. That showed some leadership in itself. Noticeably absent from the banquet was Guenther himself, and to nobody's surprise, Richmond was not there as well. So, in short, yes, there are plenty of questions surrounding the Illinois basketball program, and once again, what every one is asking these days is.... What's wrong with Illinois? We may find out, although it might not be known for a while.
Spring workouts have begun in earnest for the Fighting Illini football team, and coming off of a Texas Bowl victory in December, expectations are running unusually high as the annual spring game draws ever so closer. It's hard to think of a time where the football team has been more successful than the basketball team, but that time is now, and Coach Ron Zook has reason to be optimistic. With 8 home games slated for 2011, the first 5 of which will begin the season in Champaign, the possibility of starting 6-0 is a real possibility heading into a showdown with Ohio State in October. The main focus for this team during the spring workouts will be to build on what they accomplished in 2010, and back-to-back bowl trips will go a long way in achieving that. Watching offensive coordinator Paul Petrino in practice is priceless, and you had better not do something to draw his ire, because you will pay for it if you do. The man is intense, and I think the offense will do some big things this coming season. The spring game will be at 1:00 on Saturday, April 23rd, and it will be refreshing to see what these past couple weeks of practice has done for this squad.
The spring seasons are also underway for the Illini baseball and softball teams, and both teams are struggling. The baseball team is currently 11-16, and will welcome the Salukis of Southern Illinois to Illinois Field on Wednesday before heading to Michigan this weekend for a series with the Wolverines. The softball team is faring a little bit better at 18-14 overall, and are scheduled to play Purdue in West Lafayette on Wednesday in an afternoon doubleheader. Both teams have had their share of games cancelled on account of weather, something that is pretty common in Illinois during the early spring season. Once the temperatures heat up, here's hoping the bats for both teams will do the same.