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.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Summer Daze.......

Now that the Fighting Illini baseball team has finished their season, this concludes the sports at the University for the calendar year of 2010-11. Dan Hartleb's team made a good showing in the NCAA Regional in Fullerton, California, knocking off the hosts, Cal. State-Fullerton, along the way, before getting eliminated by Stanford. Still, this was a banner season for the Illini in many ways, most notably since halfway through the regular season it appeared that even a Big Ten Tournament bid was unlikely. But, the Illini persevered and went on a tear at the end of the season to not only get in the tourney, but garner the top seed. After the pairings were announced for the NCAA Regionals, the Illini were sent out west where they faced CS-Fullerton in the opening game, which they lost, sending them to the elimination round where they first defeated Kansas State to stay alive, followed by a sensational performance in a win over Fullerton in the rematch of the first game. This put the Illini into the championship game against the Cardinal, who proved to be too much for the Illini to overcome. However, the country came to know guys like Josh Parr, Matt Dittman and Davis Hendrickson, and the future looks bright once again for the Illini as they look toward 2012. Several Illini were drafted in the MLB draft, but it remains to be seen who will actually sign contracts and who will return to the team next season. Whatever happens, it appears that the Illini will once again be back in the hunt toward the top of the Big Ten standings.

The Illini held their annual team basketball camp this past week on campus, and several key targets for recruiting were on hand at the one day event. I had a chance to take in a couple of the early matchups at the Ubben practice facility on Wednesday, and came away with a sense of puzzlement as to why certain players are on the radar and others are not. Junior-to-be Nathan Taphorn of Pekin is one of those players, and if he intends on playing in the Big Ten, he needs to do two things, and they are to grow a little more and add some size to his body. He reminds me of Bill Cole at about the same age, and if he can mature at the rate that Cole did, then maybe that is a possibility. A couple of Missouri Valley schools have also expressed interest in Taphorn, and if he maintains his current stature, he seems to be a much better fit at that level rather than at the major college division such as the Big Ten. One player that I did not get to see that is on the radar was Chicago Hope's Jalen James, who apparently was offered a scholarship that day and accepted later that evening. James is the first of the 2013 class to be offered a scholarship, and there are many others in the class that are sure to be evaluated. Many of the top players in the state were not at the camp, since they are playing elsewhere for the summer with all-star or AAU teams. With the 2012 class being one of the weaker groups in recent memory, the focus now switches to the 2013 class in hopes that there will be a couple of scholarships to offer some of the top talent of that class.

Thursday was the first day that the media could interview and talk to the incoming freshmen class on the basketball team, and one thing is clear as summer workouts begin; there are a lot of new faces, which gives renewed optimism, but also raises a few questions. As far as the new players go, all but one of them are on campus and already going through workouts and weights with the current players. Mike Shaw (right), who committed to the Illini last October at his high school in Chicago, is really excited about getting started, which shows in his demeanor and attitude. Devin Langford (left) , who is the only out-of-state player currently on campus, is adjusting to life away from home, and seems to be ready to go as well. Langford, if you may remember, played last December in the Shootout At The Hall with his team from Alabama, and made an oral commitment to the Illini shortly thereafter. One of the players that transferred in after the current class was assembled, Sam Maniscalco (right), came over from Bradley and will slot in at the point guard position for Coach Bruce Weber when the season begins later in the fall. When coach Jim Les was fired at Bradley, it opened the door for Maniscalco to make a move, and since he is in the graduate program at Illinois, it allowed him to transfer and play immediately, something that the Illini coaches were looking for since the incoming point guard from the recruiting class, Tracy Abrams (above left), is just a freshman. Abrams also played in the Shootout with Mt. Carmel, and will be the understudy to Maniscalco, who has the experience necessary to play the point position for the Illini. Two other players, Mychael Henry and Nnanna Egwu were still lifting weights during my time down at Ubben, so I didn't get a chance to speak with them. A seventh recruit, Ibrahim Jimde, is having issues getting transcripts from his native Mali, and has not arrived on campus yet. The current group of players seem to adapt will with the newcomers, and they are gearing up for a trip overseas in August, where they will all get a chance to play together for the first time.

The NBA draft was held on Thursday in Newark, New Jersey, and of the three Illini that expected to hear their name called, none of them actually received that call. Seniors Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, and freshman Jereme Richmond all were projected by some to be drafted, but in the end, it didn't happen for any of the three. Now they can only hope that they can catch on with an NBA team signing a free agent deal, or take their game overseas. Perhaps the most questionable decision was that of Richmond, who left school after his freshman year to test the NBA waters. But Richmond missed a couple of workouts with potential NBA suitors, thus thinning his chances of hooking on with a team. Not surprising, given the fact that Richmond had somewhat of a rocky road during his short time in Champaign-Urbana. For a player that had committed before he even played a minute of high school basketball, he chanced high schools three times in his four years, and had numerous altercations with coaches and other players along the way. Karma? You be the judge of that.

Finally, believe it or not, football season is on the horizon, and whether or not there is an NFL season come September, there will be a college season. The annual kickoff for the Big Ten takes place on July 28-29 in Chicago, where they will welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers to the league as the 12th team. There are only 46 days until Camp Rantoul begins and the 8-game home season for the Illini, the first in the history of the program.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Uncharted Waters

Memorial Day weekend normally signals the beginning of summer, as schools across the state let out and kids everywhere start their three months of freedom. It seems strange to still be talking Illini baseball as this time of the year approaches, but the fact that they are still playing is all the more reason to give them some much needed print. After defeating Indiana in 3 straight games to wrap up the regular season, the Illini made the trip east to Huntington Park in Columbus, Ohio for the Big Ten Tournament. Since schools in the midwest do not normally qualify as an at-large entry in the NCAA Tournament, the Illini would need to win the Big Ten Tourney in order to crack the field of 64 on Selection Monday, which, coincidentally, also was Memorial Day. Being the top seed in the tourney, the Illini had the pleasure of watching the other teams do battle, knowing full well that they would be facing one of the lower seeded teams when they finally took the field on Thursday. That team was Ohio State, which acted as the host school, since the tourney took place in Columbus, and what was to come about was truly epic. Down 4-1 heading into the last of the ninth, the Illini mounted a comeback for the ages, scoring 4 times in the frame on a walk-off single by Davis Hendrickson. The momentum from that game carried on into Friday evening, as the Illini took on regular season champion Michigan State. Needless to say, pitching was the name of the game as John Anderson threw a gem, going 7 1/3 innings and only allowing 1 earned run in notching the win and vaulting the Illini into the championship game on Saturday. The Illini were set to rematch against the Spartans after they dispatched the Minnesota Golden Gophers earlier in the day. In the title game, the Illini bats came alive, as Matt Dittman clubbed a grand slam over the right field wall and gave Corey Kimes all he would need, as Kimes went the distance, striking out 7 to give the Illini the Big Ten Tourney crown and the automatic bid in the NCAA Tournament. With the win, the Illini won their 8th straight game and improved to 28-25 overall, awaiting their fate on Monday.

Going to the NCAA Tournament is not a familiar trek for the Illini baseball team, as they had not been included in the field since 2000, when Itch Jones was still the coach. So, you can imagine the excitement on Memorial Day when the Illini were finally called and saw where they were headed. The destination was Fullerton, California to play Cal State-Fullerton on Friday evening at 10:00 pm central time (televised by ESPNU). The Titans are familiar to the Illini, mainly because Augie Garrido, who was a former coach of the Illini before Jones came to Champaign, was a long time coach at CSF. The Titans are the top seed in the regional and come in to the game with the Illini at 40-15 overall. The Titans play in the Big West Conference, and compiled a 19-5 mark this season to top the standings. The other two teams in the regional are Stanford and Kansas State, and for the Illini to emerge victorious and play on, they need some more of the magic that they have been able to muster for the last 10 games of the regular season, where they have gone 9-1. This Illini team is playing about as good as anyone in the country, so the prospects of them moving on is just as good as any other team making the move. Hey, lightning can strike twice, can't it?

Speaking of lightning striking, how about the turn of events over in Columbus, Ohio over the past couple of weeks? An ongoing situation came to an unforseen conclusion last week with the resignation of Buckeye head football coach Jim Tressel amid allegations that he covered up knowledge of memorabilia and other "perks" given to star players. Tressel for many years has been viewed as the picture of honesty, fielding good football teams each and every year. But, truth be told, Tressel has had a history of shady findings, even at his last job at Youngstown State, where he was also very successful. Many believe that the penalties that will be assessed to the Ohio State program will be justified, given the nature of the infractions. The Buckeyes have been on a pedestal for many years, and this will undoubtedly knock them from that perch and bring them back to the middle of the pack. With Nebraska coming into the league next month, this opens up a grand opportunity for the Cornhuskers to gain supremacy right away.

More next week, including the results of the Illini in the NCAA Regionals. It's summer, folks!!