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, December 31, 2011

Out With The Old......In With The New

2011 was quite a year for Fighting Illini sports, both good and bad. As I type this, the football team, captained by interim coach Vic Koenning is winning their bowl game against UCLA in San Francisco, while the basketball team got pummeled at Purdue at around the same time. (More on both of those games later). But, the football program endured its share of ups and downs during the season, and the fact that they are even in a bowl game is a miracle unto itself. After all, this is the same team that started the season 6-0, lost their next 6 games to finish the regular season 6-6, and in the process, fired head coach Ron Zook. That firing led to the naming of Koenning as interim coach, and for the exception of defensive line coach Keith Gilmore, will start fresh with a stable of new coaches under Tim Beckman, who was hired in mid-December to take over the Illini. Koenning, who is headed to North Carolina to become defensive coordinator for Larry Fedora, has done a pretty good job leading the Illini in the meantime, and I must admit that I will be sorry to see him go. But, I understand his reasoning to want to start fresh, especially when there is a new coach coming in from the outside that has his own schemes. This Illini team, who ended up defeating the Bruins 20-14 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, is the first team in school history to win consecutive bowl games, and with a long standing history of Illinois football, that is remarkable in itself. Granted, when you think Illinois football, winning is not something that immediately comes to mind. But, that is still a feat that warrants mention. This hasn't been the best Illinois team by far, but under Koenning, at least they gave it all they had.
Beckman inherits an Illini team in much better shape than when Zook was named coach after Ron Turner was fired. The only impending question at the moment is whether or not junior defensive lineman Whitney Mercilus will return. Mercilus had a record setting season, and all signs are pointing to him skipping his senior season and taking his game to the next level. All in all, a nice bowl win by the Illini and something to build on as the Tim Beckman era begins in Champaign.

Bruce Weber's Fighting Illini men's basketball team also played on New Year's Eve, and at the same time that the football team was doing battle in San Francisco. The result was not as favorable, however, as the Illini dropped a 75-60 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette. The Illini have not beaten the Boilers in the last 6 games, which means that nobody on the current squad has tasted victory against them. 2011 was another year of ups and downs for the Illini basketball team, with a return to the NCAA Tournament, and a win against UNLV before losing to Kansas and former coach Bill Self in the third round. Key losses of Demetri McCamey, Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole to graduation, as well as Jereme Richmond declaring early for the NBA draft. The story of Richmond didn't end very well, as he was not drafted, and ended up getting arrested and could face possible prison time as a result of his misfortunes. Such a tragic turn of events for a promising talent that may have seen his career end before it even began. Nice way to waste four years waiting for him to arrive, and then to have this happen. The defections didn't end with Richmond, however, as earlier last week Crandall Head left the Illinois program, apparently for a lack of playing time. Crandall had his problems while at Illinois, and unlike his brother Luther, who was given a second chance by Weber, never could seem to be consistent on the court. However, this is still a young Illinois team, and this year could be packed with a lot of nights when they play like they did against Purdue. I would just get used to it, and if I were Mike Thomas, maybe it is time to think about a change at the top if things continue on the path that it is at the moment. The Big Ten is competitive, and wins on the road will be hard to come by, no matter who you are.

Perhaps the highlight of 2011 was the remarkable run by the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team, as they made it all the way to the national championship game, before falling to UCLA, who won their fourth title in their storied history. Kevin Hambly had his team set a goal at the beginning of the season, and that goal was to win the title, something that they nearly accomplished. There were a few bumps along the way, but for the most part, the season went according to planned, and was a magical run. Hopefully the ladies can repeat the feat in 2o12 and create some sort of a dynasty for the Illinois program. That is sorely needed in any sport at the moment.

Jolette Law's Illini women's team continues Big Ten play this coming week when they welcome Purdue to the Assembly Hall on Monday to begin 2012. 2011 saw some flashes of promise, as the Illini ladies made a run in the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, finally bowing out to Penn State in the semifinals. The loss meant the the Illini have not been to the NCAA Tournament in 8 years, something that drastically needs to change. So far in the 2011-12 campaign, that streak seems in no danger of ending, as they have stumbled out to a 6-8 start to the season, albeit losing Centrese McGee before the season began to an ACL injury. I also hope that Mike Thomas is closely watching this situation and makes the right decision about the future of this program.

Happy New Year! May 2012 bring more promise!!

No comments: