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.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

     So, tell me who is surprised that John Groce's Fighting Illini men's basketball team is 12-1 through their first 13 games?  When the schedule came out and judging by what we knew of this team going into the season, there was little hope that the Illini would storm out of the gate with this level of success with the likes of Gonzaga, Missouri, and the Maui Invitational on the docket.  But, with the exception of the loss to Missouri last week in St. Louis, the Illini are defying odds and showing the country that they are for real.  Before the Missouri game, people wondered if the Illini were still worthy of the Top 10 ranking that they were carrying around with them, and even though they were defeated by the Tigers, they showed great resolve and made the game close throughout the contest.  This leaves one game remaining in the non-conference schedule, the annual United Center tilt with Auburn on Saturday (1:15 pm CT, BTN).  On paper, this points to yet another win, but the UC floor has not been kind to the Illini the last couple of times out, including the very ugly loss to UIC a couple years back.  Once the game with Auburn is done, it will be time for the Big Ten season to begin, and this will be one of the deepest leagues in recent memory, as Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State all join the Illini in the top 15 in the nation.  Better enjoy the ride while it is smooth, guys.

     The Fighting Illini women's basketball team has been holding their own so far this season under new coach Matt Bollant, but nobody said it would be easy for them to have sustained success, even though Bollant came in with a strong pedigree of coaching.  The Illini dropped a tough game last Friday night at the Assembly Hall 69-68 to Illinois State, a game that they seemingly had in control until the bottom fell out.  Karisma Penn had another monster game for the Illini, as she scored 22 points, grabbed 15 rebounds, and had 6 blocks in the defeat.  Alexis Smith had a chance to win the game for Illinois, but her three-pointer bounced off the rim as time expired, giving the Redbirds the hard-fought victory.  The Illini have a another tough game ahead of them, as #6 Georgia invades the Assembly Hall on Friday night (7:00 pm, CT, No TV).  The Bulldogs come into the game with the Illini a perfect 12-0 on the season.

     Had a chance to take in some of the Pontiac Holiday Tournament and see a couple future Illini players in Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate.  For a small town, there is sure some big time basketball being played in Pontiac over the course of 3 days to end the year.  The headliner of the tournament is Simeon High School, who have the two Illini recruits Nunn and Tate, plus perhaps the crown jewel of the 2013 season in Jabari Parker, who last week announced that he would be attending Duke University to play basketball.  Illinois was never really a factor for Parker, although rumor has it if Bruce Weber would have stayed at Illinois, the situation may have been different.  Parker narrowed his final choices down to 5, and the Illini were nowhere on that list.  Nunn and Tate, on the other hand, will renew the tradition of wearing the #25 in honor of Ben Wilson, a Simeon player that was gunned down during his senior season back in 1984.  It appears that Nunn will wear the #25 jersey.  Another top prospect in the nation also played in the tournament, Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie.  Alexander, one of the top 4 prospects in the class of 2014, has received offers from virtually every top tier program in the nation, including Illinois.  However, he seems to be leaning toward Michigan State, although he has not made a commitment one way or the other for the time being.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Rolling Right Along

     So far in the John Groce era at Illinois, things have gone very well, and the sudden resurgence of the basketball program has made a lot of people around Illini Nation forget the disaster that the football season provided.  Going into last Saturday evening's game at Gonzaga, nobody (including this pundit), gave the Illini a fighting chance to walk into Spokane and knock off the Zags.  But, that's exactly what happened, as Illinois survived a cold start that saw them get down by double digits early in the game to upset Gonzaga 85-74 to move to 10-0 on the season.  Brandon Paul was 'da man, as he scored 35 points, giving people flashback memories to last season, when he dropped 42 on Ohio State.  Paul seems to be coming into his own and taking a leadership role on this team, something that was severely lacking last season under then coach Bruce Weber.  But, this is a different attitude altogether for the new-look Illini, and it shows on the court.  The next question was, how would the Illini respond in their next game, a seemingly winnable game against Norfolk State?  The answer was somewhat expected, as they struggled on Tuesday night at the Assembly Hall against the Spartans, but still came out on top to defeat Norfolk State 64-54 to extend their winning streak to begin the Groce era to 11.  Paul once again led the Illini in scoring with 14 points, while D. J. Richardson, who was banged up during the game, added 11.  The fast start for Illinois is renewing expectations for a return to the NCAA Tournament, but not so fast, folks.  The Big Ten, which is the strongest it has been in a long time, still beckons.  But, one game at a time.  The next challenge for the Illini will be unbeaten Eastern Kentucky on Sunday at the Assembly Hall (5:00 pm CT, ESPNU).  The Colonels are 9-0 and have beaten Norfolk State by a larger margin than what the Illini did.  They also have a local product on their team in former Centennial Charger Jeff Johnson.  Johnson, who has transformed his body by losing about 45 pounds in the off-season, may not be the most prolific player on the Eastern Kentucky roster, but he is making a difference and playing Division I basketball, which is no small accomplishment itself.  Johnson is also the former teammate of Illini player Ravonte Rice, who is sitting out this season due to transfer rules.  The Illini tend to play down to the level of their opponent, and this is no exception to that rule.  One game at a time boys, one game at a time.

     Groce also received some good news on the recruiting front this past week, when he locked up his first verbal for the 2014 recruiting class.  Centennial product Michael Finke, who has been wooed by several other schools in the Big Ten, decided he wanted to stay home to play his college basketball.  Finke, a junior, has really elevated his game in the past season, and according to him, the sky's the limit as to how far he can further improve his game.  Finke also stated that he models his game after current Illini player Tyler Griffey, and can see himself in the role in Groce's offense.  The 2014 class is off to a good start, no doubt.

     After a hiccup by the Illini women in Texas last week, they bounced back by winning a couple of games, on the road in Memphis 73-65, a game in which Karisma Penn, the Illini's outstanding senior led Matt Bollant's squad with 21 points.  The Illini showed resolve down the stretch, as Alexis Smith hit 8 of her final 10 free throws to seal the victory.  Wanting to capitalize on the momentum of the Memphis win, the Illini then ventured home to battle the Oregon Ducks, who are coached by legendary bench boss Paul Westhead.  The Illini prevailed once again, downing the Ducks 80-62, as all 5 Illini starters scored in double figures, led by Penn, who had 17 points.  Ivory Crawford and Amber Moore added 16 and 15 points, respectively, who improve to 6-4 on the season.  The Illini will take a little time off for final exams, and will be back in action on Friday, December 21st, when they welcome the Redbirds of Illinois State (7:00 pm CT, no TV)

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Big 10? How much is enough?

    Last week, the Big Ten announced that two more schools, Maryland and Rutgers, would be joining the conference in the summer of 2014.  With the added expansion east, that brings the total number of schools to 14 if you're scoring at home (and I know you are, admit it). This brings a number of questions to the forefront, mainly where is the endpoint for expansion?  It is evident that these schools are being brought in for one reason, and that is exposure to television markets in the New York and Washington D.C. areas, and the underlying factor in all of that is obviously money.  Commissioner Jim Delany has done a remarkable job in getting the Big Ten the needed attention in markets dominated by the Big East and ACC conferences, but what does it do for the sports that those teams play?  Rutgers has been successful on the football field, but you really don't think of them as a powerhouse in basketball.  The opposite applies to Maryland, who has been relevant in basketball, but sporadic in football.  This will ultimately create very long conference road trips, with the league stretching from College Park, Maryland to Lincoln, Nebraska.  What will end up happening as these schools and conferences play the proverbial game of 52 card pickup is there will be 4 major conferences, with 16 teams per conference.  Have at it, NCAA!  It's your mess, now fix it!

     The John Groce era at Illinois is off to a great start, and Groce now owns the best beginning to an Illinois coaching career since Fletcher Lane, over 100 years ago.  For his early heroics, the Illini have returned to the national rankings, and find themselves #13 in the AP poll and #14 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll in this week's poll.  Many pundits say that this is too high a ranking for the Illini, and they may be right.  I am not sure what they are basing this on, but after all, they are 9-0 and have a Maui Invitational championship to their credit.  However, they have struggled with teams that they should beat handily, and Tuesday night's contest against Western Carolina is a prime example of this.  The Illini won the game 72-64, but it was far from the game that it should have been.  This Illini team does have a bit more resolve than the one coached by Bruce Weber last season, and there are already marked differences in Groce's coaching style with these guys.  The Illini will get a stern test on Saturday evening when they travel to Spokane, Washington to take on the Bulldogs (or do you say Zags?) of Gonzaga (9:00 pm CT, ESPN2).  Gonzaga is also 9-0 on the season, and ranked #10 in the country, and the Illini are finishing up a four game series with the Bulldogs dating back to 2009.  The Illini have won the last two games in the series, last season in Champaign (82-75) and in 2010 in Seattle (73-61), but this Gonzaga team is big and veteran, and nobody expects the Illini to go into the Zags' arena and come out with a victory.  However, if they do, then maybe that ranking doesn't look so bad after all.  One funny bit from the game the other night regarding Groce.  In his postgame press conference, he remarked that he was glad that he wore dark underwear, because one time when he crouched, he split his pants, and remained that way for the rest of the game.  Side-spliting, or in this case, seam-splitting, indeed.

     New Illini women's coach Matt Bollant knew that transforming this team into an instant winner would be a challenge, and so far, he has been right.  The Illini have been fun to watch and competitive in their games, but only have a 4-4 record to show for it thus far.  The Illini dropped a 75-56 contest to Texas Tech in Lubbock on Wednesday night, behind 21 points by Amber Moore and 18 for Karisma Penn.  The Lady Red Raiders came into the game at 6-1 overall, so winning on the road was a tough task to begin with.  The Illini will conclude their brief 2 game road trip on Sunday when they travel to Memphis, Tennessee to take on Memphis (2:00 pm CT, No TV).

Friday, November 30, 2012

Upon Further Review......

     The football season is finally over for the Fighting Illini, and it couldn't have had a more fitting end than it did, which was a 50-14 drubbing at the hands of the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field in Evanston.  Illinois fans have not had much to cheer about this season, and since last season's win at Indiana, the Illini have proceeded to drop 14 straight conference games.  If you are scoring at home, yes, that means that the Illini were 0-8 this season in Big Ten play after losing the final 6 games of the 2011 season.  Not a good track record by any stretch of the imagination, and more questions than answers have surfaced as to the future of the program, not to mention the leader of that program.  For all intensive purposes, the Illini offense was a disaster this season, and the defense wasn't much better, as they were outscored 385-200 on the season.  Talk recently came up about the future of head coach Tim Beckman, but those rumors were quickly put to rest on Tuesday afternoon by athletic director Mike Thomas, who said that Beckman will be the coach in 2013.  I don't know about you, but if I were Beckman, I would be worried, because the schedule doesn't get any easier to give the Illini a break next season.

     The John Groce era has begun with a bang, and so far, through 8 games, the Illini are 8-0 and ranked for the first time in nearly a year, entering both the USA Today Coaches' poll and the AP poll at #22.  So far since Groce has been here he has transformed the Illini into a team that plays hard every possession.  Yes, there have been a couple of close calls, especially last Sunday when they squeaked by the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb 63-62.  Illinois went through the entire Maui Invitational without trailing, and seemed to have a little Hawaiian Hangover returning to Champaign.  Whatever funk the Illini were in needed to be gone before they took on the Yellowjackets of Georgia Tech on Wednesday night in the Big 10/ACC Challenge.  The current group of seniors have never lost in the challenge, and that streak continued with a 75-62 win, giving the Illini their fourth straight win in the annual competition with the ACC.  It was a tight game the entire night, and until Joseph Bertrand went on a 10-0 run by himself to give the Illini a lead that it would never relinquish, the outlook was bleak.  Brandon Paul, who didn't have his best game, still managed 15 points, but one major item of concern is the free throw shooting.  The Illini were just 7-18 from the line, and that stat will have to improve from here on out, especially when the schedule gets a little tougher before the Big Ten season begins in earnest.  The Illini will have a few days off to recuperate before next taking the court next Tuesday against the Catamounts of Western Carolina (7:00 pm CT, no TV).  The start to this season is the best for a first year Illini coach in nearly 100 years.  Hopefully, he can continue this early success to make Illini Nation forget Fighting Illini football.

     After stubbing their toe in The Bahamas in the championship game of the Junkanoo Jam, the Fighting Illini women's basketball team returned to the Assembly Hall to host the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in their own version of the Big 10/ACC Challenge.  The Illini emerged victorious, winning 95-82 behind a double-double by Karisma Penn, who scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.  Ivory Crawford added 26 points, while Amber Moore chipped in 11 points to help improve the Illini's record to 4-2 on the season.  In The Bahamas, the Illini got by Iowa State 68-50 last Friday before losing to Tulsa less than 24 hours later 82-75.  Still, it was a trip that Coach Matt Bollant said was a learning experience.  After all, Bollant is still in the beginning phases of his tenure at Illinois, and the players, as a result, are learning his system as well.  The Illini don't have a lot of time in between games, as they are back in action on Saturday afternoon when they host Colorado (1:00 pm CT, BTN.com).

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

     I guess, since it still is technically football season, that I should lead off this week's blog entry with Illini football, even though I don't really want to.  Although the Illini season will be done after this Saturday's game, this has been one that many in Illini Nation will want to soon forget.  Perhaps the most winnable game remaining on the schedule almost resulted in a win, but it was still a loss and as a result, dropped the Illini to 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Big Ten.    It is no secret that Tim Beckman has struggled in his first season as the Illinois coach, and there very well could be some coaching changes in the off-season.  The Illini were defeated last Saturday on Senior Day by a 20-17 score to the Purdue Boilermakers, who are still in the hunt for a bowl berth.  This was a game that the Illini could have won, but the same miscues that have plagued them all season came to roost against the Boilers, and the chance to break the long conference losing streak came and went.  There is not much hope for ending this streak in the final game of the season, when the Illini head north to Evanston to battle the Northwestern Wildcats this coming Saturday (11:00 am CT, BTN).  The Wildcats, or "that team up north", as quoted by Beckman, are 8-3 overall and are still very much in contention for a New Year's Day bowl game.

     So far, so good on the John Groce era at Illinois, as they have gotten off to a fast and successful start.  After beginning the season with two wins at home, the Illini made the long trip to Hawaii for four games, starting off in Honolulu with a come from behind win over the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii 78-77 in overtime.  The Illini were down by as much as 16 points in the game before making a remarkable comeback and getting the win on a last second jumper by D. J. Richardson at the buzzer.  Just the fact that the Illini held their composure was a sign of good things to come.  After the game against Hawaii, the Illini did some island hopping onto the island of Maui to compete in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, where they faced some tough competition.  The first test was the Trojans of USC, which proved to be no match at all, as the Illini prevailed 94-64, once again shooting lights out from beyond the arc.  That earned the Illini a berth in the semifinals against host Chaminade, a Division II school that knocked off Texas in their first game.  It was more of the same for the Illini against the Silverswords, as they won 84-61 to advance to the championship game of the tournament against Butler, who upset #9 ranked North Carolina in the semifinals. There is something about this new energy for the Fighting Illini, and it showed once again as the Illini defeated Butler 78-61 to capture the Maui Invitational title.  Brandon Paul once again led the Illini in scoring with 20 points, while Tracy Abrams added 17.  Tyler Griffey and D. J. Richardson each netted 14 points to propel Illinois to a 6-0 start, and momentum heading into the Thanksgiving holiday.  In the three games in Maui, the Illini never trailed, but more importantly, have hit the double digit mark in three pointers made in each game this season. They lead the nation in that category.  The Illini will return home for a couple of games this coming week, first taking on Gardner-Webb on Sunday afternoon (3:00 pm CT, BTN), followed by the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Georgia Tech next Wednesday (8:00 pm CT, ESPN2).  Coaching can make a difference, and that point is very evident so far this season.

     After losing for the first time this season, Matt Bollant's Illini women's basketball team returned to their winning ways by defeating Cleveland State 83-64 last Sunday at the Assembly Hall behind Ivory Crawford, who scored 32 points to help lead her team to victory.  Karisma Penn added 17, while Amber Moore scored 12 to push the Illini's record to 2-1 overall.  The Illini will head to their own tropical paradise to play in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas at Grand Bahama Island.  The Illini will face Tulsa on Friday afternoon (3:45 pm CT, no TV), then will take on either Iowa State or Loyola Marymount on Saturday.

     A very successful season for the Illini women's soccer team came to an end last Friday evening when they were defeated 9-2 by coach Janet Rayfield's alma mater, North Carolina, in Chapel Hill.  The Illini can hold their head high for even getting this far, having made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament to put them in position to get the NCAA berth, then getting a win in that tournament as well to force the matchup with the Tar Heels.  The Illini finish the season at 10-9-4 overall, and have great visions of either matching or exceeding their success next season.

     Needing to run the table in order to put themselves in position for an NCAA Tournament berth, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team fell short of that goal by losing at Michigan State last Friday night.  The Illlini came back and defeated Michigan on Saturday evening, then dispatched Northwestern in 5 games on the night before Thanksgiving up in Evanston.  The Illini will close out the season on Saturday night when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes. Yes, it has been a disappointing season for the Illini, but with the tough schedule that they played, plus losing some top flight players from last season's national runner-up team, it was bound to happen.  The Illini are currently 13-16 overall and 7-12 in conference play.  They will return to prominence in  the not too distant future.

Friday, November 16, 2012

     No offense, but I am almost glad that this Illinois football season is about over.  I actually could have stopped that sentence after the first two words, because the lack of offense this season is much of the reason why the Illini are 2-8 overall and in the basement of the Big 10.  The latest setback was a 17-3 loss to the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who became bowl eligible with the win.  The Illini offense, in a word to describe it, has been anemic lately, and with the apparent infighting within the coaching staff on who calls plays on which downs, something besides the players on the field could be some cause for blame.  It was brought out in the open last week that there are some coaches that may not be returning next season, and that ultimately falls on Tim Beckman, who hired them.  I know that the Illinois football job isn't one of the most coveted, but you still need to get coaches in here that can work well with the head coach.  It could, ultimately, come down to players, because this season shows that the last two years of the Ron Zook era didn't produce the best recruiting classes.  The Illini, desperately seeking a win any way that they can, will lace 'em up again on Saturday in the home finale against the Purdue Boilermakers (2:30 pm CT, BTN).  The Boilers haven't exactly been a success story this season, but they are 4-6 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten, and still have a legitimate shot at a bowl berth with a win over the Illini on Saturday and a win against Indiana next weekend.  The Illini are a dismal 2-8 overall and still winless in the Big Ten at 0-6.  Nobody expected to see what is transpiring this season, and who knows what the future will hold?  Of the 20 seniors playing their final game at Memorial Stadium this weekend, quite a few of them have aspirations of playing in the NFL, so the lack of talent for next year's team will not bode well for wins, as the schedule gets a whole lot tougher when Nebraska comes onto the schedule.  Just take a wait and see approach, I guess.

     The John Groce era at Illinois is off to a good start, with the Illini getting out to a 2-0 start with early wins over Colgate and St. Francis (NY).  The Illini defeated the Terriers of St. Francis 89-64 on Monday evening at the Assembly Hall, as senior Tyler Griffey led the Illini with 17 points, which was one point off his career high.  Already two games into the Groce era, this teams looks markedly different than it did under Weber last year, although most of the cast of characters are the same.  The next few games will tell a lot about what this year's team will look like, as the Illini head to Hawaii to play four games on the islands of Hawaii and Maui.  The first game will be on Friday evening, when the Illini take on the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii (11:30 pm CT, No TV, however the game will be streamed online for free at OCSports.tv).  Following the game against Hawaii, the Illini will hop islands and play in the EA Sports Maui Invitational starting on Monday evening against the USC Trojans (11:00 pm CT, ESPN2).  This will be a good early season test for the Illini, and the first time that they have played away from home this season.  Groce also landed a great first recruiting class, inking five players for the class of 2013.  The Simeon duo of Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate headline the class, as well as Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan, and Austin Colbert to round it out.  With this recruiting class being nationally ranked, the Illini are once again on the way up and success could be headed back to Champaign sooner than later.  Stay tuned.

     Along the same lines as the men's basketball team, the Illini women also have a new coach, and the Matt Bollant era is officially underway in Champaign, with similar results.  After opening the season with a win 84-52 over Evansville last Sunday, the Illini welcomed Bradley to the Assembly Hall and couldn't match the Braves' quickness, falling 83-77 behind another monster game by Karisma Penn.  Penn led all scorers with 29 points and grabbed 16 rebounds, but it wasn't enough as the Illini fell to 1-1 on the season.  The Illini will continue non-conference action on Sunday afternoon when they host Cleveland State (2:00 pm CT, No TV).

     The season appears to be winding down for the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team, and the possibility of postseason play is all but a memory now.  With no margin for error now, the Illini welcome Michigan State and Michigan to Huff Hall for their final home matches of the season.  Michigan State comes in on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, BTN.com), while the Wolverines visit Champaign on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV).  The Illini lost both matches on their recent swing to the eastern part of the Big Ten, losing 3-0 at Penn State, and then falling at Ohio State in 5 games.  With the Illini currently sitting at 11-15 overall, but just 5-11 in the Big Ten, they need to win out this weekend and next to even have a chance to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.  Strength of schedule may actually help them, but if they don't get four wins in the last four matches, then the point is moot.

     Finally, the Fighting Illini women's soccer team is enjoying postseason play, and will travel to coach Janet Rayfield's alma mater of North Carolina to face the Tar Heels on Friday evening  (5:30 pm CT).  The Illini survived Missouri in Columbia, winning on penalty kicks to advance to the next round.  The Illini come into the match with the Tar Heels at 10-8-4 overall, while North Carolina, ranked #13 in the country, are 11-5-2.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

     I normally begin each weekly blog with the report on the Illinois football team.  Well, everyone knows what is going on within that program right now, so I will begin this week's entry with men's and women's basketball.  No offense to Tim Beckman, but those programs show much more promise than the football team does.  John Groce's Illini basketball team has finished up exhibition play, and even though the final score would indicate a close game, it really wasn't as close as what the score would show you.  The Illini defeated West Chester, a Division II school from Pennsylvania, 75-66 on Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall in Champaign.  The Illini held a lead as large as 27 points during the game, but didn't have a very good stretch in the second half, thus letting West Chester back in the game.  At one point, Groce replaced his lineup with 5 brand new players, but quickly retracted them once the lead fell below 10 points.  The Illini have a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to get a lot accomplished, as they begin the season on Friday night when they host Colgate at the Assembly Hall (7:00 pm, CT, No TV).  This game will mark the official beginning of the Groce era, and the Orange Krush will be ushering it in style as they welcome Groce by bringing out "Orange Hush", a nod to Groce's alma mater, Taylor University.  The Krush will remain silent from the beginning of the game until the Illini score their 10th point of the game.  At that point, they will cheer wildly, and they are asking the fans going to the game to participate in the event as well.  Let's just hope that the game doesn't resemble the Penn State game a couple years ago, when the Illini barely hit the 10 point mark before halftime.  If that happens, prepare for a very quiet Assembly Hall on Friday night.

     Things have started off very well for Matt Bollant and the women's basketball team, and if Tuesday night's final exhibition tuneup is any indication, then the season should be a very exciting one.  The Illini totally obliterated Concordia University 120-29 at the Assembly Hall, as seven players scored in double figures and the Illini's defense forced 53 turnovers in the game.  The leading scorer for the Illini was Taylor Tuck with 20 points, while Amber Moore added 16.  The Illini took a 65-13 lead at the half, and really never had any issue from that point on with their guests.  The season tips off for real this Sunday when the Illini host Evansville (2:00 pm, CT, no TV).

     Now, for some football.  I made my first trip to the 'Shoe last Saturday to cover the game, and came away impressed at the facility, but not the action on the field.  The Illini once again went down to defeat 52-22 to the Ohio State Buckeyes, and were never really in the game except for the first quarter.  The Illini scored first on a field goal by Nick Immekus, who returned from an injury that has sidelined him for the past several weeks.  The Buckeyes answered with a touchdown, and then the Illini traded another field goal for yet another touchdown.  So, you can see the score discrepancy as the Illini kept getting field goals while the Buckeyes were scoring the touchdowns.  One bright spot of the game was the return of Corey Lewis, who had been sidelined for the past couple of years with various injuries.  Lewis was emotional upon his return, as was expected, and Beckman has petitioned for a sixth year of eligibility for a medical redshirt.  The Illini return for the first of two final home games on Saturday when they host the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2:30 pm, CT, BTN).  On paper, the Illini have a shot to beat the Gophers, but coach Jerry Kill has Minnesota playing their best football of the season.  Therefore, a win will be difficult, but definitely not out of the question.  The Illini are a dismal 2-7 overall and still winless in the Big Ten at 0-5, and with the loss to the Buckeyes on Saturday, are officially eliminated from any bowl appearance.  Not that they were going to anyway.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team wrapped up play in the Big Ten Tournament last Sunday, and made the championship game coming from the #5 seed.  The Illini upset top seed Penn State to get to the title game, but was defeated by Ohio State 2-1.  However, the Illini's tournament success earned them a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they will be facing Missouri on Saturday evening (6:30 pm, CT) in Columbia.  The Illini enter NCAA Tourney play at 10-8-3 overall.

     The road for Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team has been anything but easy this season, and time is drawing very thin for them to try and repeat to get to the Final Four as they begin their toughest road trip this weekend when they travel to #2 Penn State on Thursday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN) and #15 Ohio State on Saturday night (6:00 pm CT, no TV).  The Illini have struggled mightily since their appearance in the title game last season, and can ill afford any more losses.  The Illini defeated Indiana last Friday evening at Huff Hall to improve to 10-13 overall, but still remain 5-9 in the conference.  Nobody said it would be easy for the Illini this year, but I do not think they envisioned anything close to what they are experiencing.  In order for the Illini to have any reasonable shot at a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, they pretty much need to win out, including these two this weekend.

   


Friday, November 2, 2012

     The increasingly long Illinois football season got a bit longer last Saturday, as the Illini once again did everything they could to beat themselves, and pretty much accomplished the feat in impressive fashion, losing 31-17 to the Indiana Hoosiers in front of a half-filled Memorial Stadium for Homecoming.  From a standpoint of statistics, all signs would have pointed to an Illini win, and a temporary relief from the train wreck that has become Illinois football.  The Illini have committed senseless turnovers all season, and they never seem to come at the right times of the game, only when they seem to hurt them the most.  Also, the penalties continue to mount, and they, too, are being committed when they need them the least.  But what can be done about this?  I would hope that the players realize that they are making these mistakes, and a couple bounces here and there may have swung one of the games in the other direction.  With the exception of the Wisconsin game, the Illini have not really been in any of the recent losses, and even in that game, the Illini totally fell apart in the fourth quarter.  According to coach Tim Beckman, "you just can't continue to give them chances, especially deep in your own territory.  As a result of all this, Tommie Davis has been removed from returning punts, since he cannot seem to catch one and bring it upfield.  Those types of senseless mistakes are a huge reason the Illini are 2-6 overall and still looking for their first Big Ten win.  It doesn't get any easier for Illinois, as they head east to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes this Saturday (2:30 pm, CT, ESPN.)  The Buckeyes are 9-0 overall and 5-0 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, and although they are not eligible to go to a bowl game this year, they are still a pretty darn good team.  Led by quarterback Braxton Miller, the Buckeyes have been rolling over teams with their high-powered offense.  Ohio State is coached by Urban Meyer, who needs no introduction when it comes to winning championships.  Meyer has had success wherever he has been, beginning at Miami of Ohio, and then going to Utah and Florida, where he won two national championships.  Meyer's path has crossed several times with Beckman's, as they have been coaching partners in a couple of different spots.  Will the student outduel the teacher this weekend?  Don't bet on it.

     Things are beginning much better for new Illini basketball coach John Groce, as they held their first of two exhibition games last Saturday night by defeating Lewis University 79-47 at the Assembly Hall.  Maybe it was the fact that it is still technically football season, or that there was a lot of other activities going on, but the game wasn't very well attended.  Senior D. J. Richardson led three Illini in double figures with 12 points, while Myke Henry and transfer Sam McLaurin each scored 11 points.  While it still is very early to gauge how this season will go with the new coaching staff in place, it already seems as if the current players have bought in to what Groce is trying to do, which is a breath of fresh air, especially the way the football season has gone.  The Illini will have their final pre-season tuneup on Sunday afternoon when West Chester pays a visit to Champaign (3:00 pm, No TV).

    Perhaps the most exciting of the three Mike Thomas coaching hires have also started their season, and they as well won an exhibition game, defeating Marian University of Indianapolis 89-37 on Tuesday evening at the Assembly Hall.  Coach Matt Bollant brings an exciting brand of basketball with him to Champaign from Wisconsin-Green Bay, and it already is beginning to show with the initial win of his Illini career.  Karisma Penn led the way for the Illini with a double-double, scoring 24 points and grabbing 16 rebounds, while Alexis Smith and Amber Moore added 19 and 12 points, respectively.  The Illini will continue exhibition play this coming Tuesday night when they welcome Concordia University to the Assembly Hall for a 7:00 pm tip.  Hopefully the fans will begin to realize that Bollant is determined to change the culture of Illinois women's basketball and start showing up in much larger numbers than they are normally used to.

     The story for women's volleyball is not as rosy right now, as the Illini are still struggling through the Big Ten season, trying to muster up enough wins to somehow qualify for the NCAA Tournament, something that was not thought to be an issue once the season began.  Sure, the schedule was tough, but there have been matches that the Illini have lost that simply should not have been done.  The Illini losing streak has reached 4 straight matches, the latest coming on Halloween night when they went down in 5 games to #22 Purdue at Huff Hall.  The Illini currently sit at 10-13 overall and 4-9 in the Big Ten, and will welcome the Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  With time running out on the season, every match counts now in order for the Illini to be one of the teams considered once the field for the NCAAs is announced.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has entered post-season mode, and so far so good.  The Illini won their first match in the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington, Indiana on Wednesday by defeating Minnesota on penalty kicks to advance to the semifinals of the tournament.  They next took on top-seeded Penn State on Friday morning and took the Nittany Lions down as well 1-0 to advance to the championship game on Sunday morning against the winner of the Ohio State-Michigan game.  The Illini have shown a lot of resilience during the tournament, and just like last season when they took down Penn State in the championship game of the tournament, they are playing well when it counts.  The Illini enter the championship game with an overall mark of 9-7-3.


Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Bye Week Blues

     The Fighting Illini enjoyed a week off this past week, and judging from head coach Tim Beckman, it couldn't have come at a better time.  The Illini are a bruised and battered bunch, and that doesn't even account for the play on the field the past few weeks.  In the Illini's 5 losses on the season, they have been beaten by margins of 31, 28, 28, 17 and 45, and are currently on the heels of a four game losing streak.  As a matter of fact, they have lost the last nine Big Ten games that they have played, and the last time they won a conference game, they beat Indiana last year in Bloomington to move to 6-0.  You can disregard what I said after the game last year as the final seconds ticked off the clock, because we soon found out that 6-0 didn't look that good when matched with an 0-6 finish to the regular season.  That led to the removal of Ron Zook, and so far in 2012, the situation isn't much better, in fact it is worse.  Judging from the comments from some of the veteran players, I don't believe that they have bought in to the Beckman system, and are just biding their time until they can vacate and move on to the next phase of their lives, whatever that may be.  Beckman has pledged that they are taking things "one day at time", and once certain players get healthy, can hopefully get back to the way that they were before things went south on them.  They can get back on that track Saturday when they welcome the team that they last beat in the Big Ten, the Indiana Hoosiers (11:00 am CT, BTN).  Indiana, although 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten as well, have played well in their five losses, the largest margin being 15 points to Northwestern of all teams.  The Hoosiers came within a few plays of knocking off Michigan State 3 weeks ago, then took Ohio State to the limit before finally losing in the closing seconds.  This is not your father's Indiana team, as Kevin Wilson has the Hoosiers playing respectfully, and it will take a monumental effort for the Illini to knock them off.  Now, when's the last time you heard that?

     Illini basketball is here to save the day, and John Groce's 2012-13 squad was on display for the first time on Monday night, when they hosted the Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the Assembly Hall.  The format was to play three eight minute quarters, but they ended up playing a fourth, in what Groce called "a conditioning move".  Groce seemed very involved on the sidelines, even though he turned the teams over to his assistant coaches, Paris Parham and Jamall Walker.  Groce mentioned to the press afterwards that overall he was pleased with the effort, but there is still a lot of work to do.  He stressed that he wants to get the message across that "practice matters".  Someone that is really becoming a force early is sophomore Nnanna Egwu.  Egwu is doing all of the right things so far, and is looking like the best player on the court at this point.  Seniors Brandon Paul and D. J. Richardson will join Groce up at Big Ten Basketball Media Day at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare on Thursday, so look for a separate blog entry with all of the tidbits and nuggets from around the conference.  The Illini tip off the exhibition portion of the season on Saturday evening when they welcome Lewis University to the Assembly Hall (7:00 PM, CT)

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to struggle through their tough schedule, and welcoming #4 ranked Nebraska didn't help matters much.  The Illini were swept in three games by the Cornhuskers, who were visiting Huff Hall for the first time as a member of the Big Ten.  The Illini will hit the road this coming weekend to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and come into those matches with a 10-10 overall record, but just 4-6 in conference play.

     The Illini women's soccer team finished up their home schedule by splitting two games, losing 2-1 to Northwestern on Thursday, and then rebounding nicely by defeating Nebraska 4-1 last Sunday for Senior Day.  The Illini will wrap up the regular season on Saturday when they travel to Michigan to face the Wolverines.  The Illini carry an 8-7-2 overall record into the match in Ann Arbor, and are 5-4-1 in the Big Ten.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Where do you turn from here?

     This season of Fighting Illini football is getting hard to watch.  Very hard to watch.  In a season that has pretty much been lost, the Illini were once again blown out, this time 45-0 at the hands of the Michigan Wolverines at a very rainy Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor.  Very little is going right for new Illini coach Tim Beckman right now, and the product on the field is very reminiscent of that.  In a game that saw the Illini only rack up 134 total yards of offense, including just 29, yes, 29! passing yards, it is very evident that something is dreadfully wrong and the fix isn't attainable at the moment.  Illini starting quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase was hurt once again against the Wolverines, and his replacement, Reilly O'Toole, didn't do much of anything.  Illinois knew that they would have their hands full with Michigan's dual threat quarterback Denard Robinson, but did anybody really expect this?  Robinson rushed for 128 yards on 11 carries and scored 2 touchdowns on the ground, while completing 7 of 11 passes for 129 yards and two more scores, including a 71 yard touchdown to receiver Jeremy Gallon.  It is plays like this that give the hint that something is not quite right with the defensive alignment of the Illini.  After all, wasn't Beckman a defensive minded coach coming in from Toledo?  While injuries have certainly been a factor this year for Illinois, that excuse is beginning to lose its identity.  This team is just plain bad, and if it looks this bleak now, next year is shaping up to be even worse. The Illini will lose Michael Buchanan, Terry Hawthorne, and possibly Akeem Spence and Jonathan Brown.  There are others on the defensive unit that also will be graduating, and the outlook for players that can step in and take over for these departing seniors looks very dismal as well.  However, one true freshman is playing very well early on, and that player is linebacker Mason Monheim.  There are rumblings as of late saying that Illinois may have hired the wrong guy, and the person that they should have looked at is the current coach at Toledo.  I still think that this thought process is a little far fetched, but as each loss continues to mount for the Illini, one has to think whether or not that could become a factor down the stretch.

     Thankfully, (I think), the Illini have a bye this week and don't have to play a game.  That means that they won't lose, and will have a chance to get some players healthy and hopefully back on the field in a week when they take on the Indiana Hoosiers a week from Saturday at Memorial Stadium for Homecoming (11:00 am, BTN).  Earlier in the season, the game against the Hoosiers looked like one that could be counted in the win column, but judging from their game against Ohio State last Saturday evening, that may no longer be a possibility.  The Hoosiers racked up 49 points in a loss to the Buckeyes, and the recent ineptness of the Illini defense to stop opponents does not bode well with Indiana coming into town.  The Illini are 2-5 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, and in their 5 losses, the closest margin has been 17 points.  That was the Wisconsin game, in which the Illini played remarkably well for three quarters before falling apart in the fourth.   Yes, there are major issues involving the Illinois football program, and there are basically no answers at the moment.

     It was nice to see professional basketball at the Assembly Hall last Friday night, as the Chicago Bulls entertained the Cleveland Cavaliers in an exhibition game.  Despite the Bulls not having Derrick Rose playing, due to an injury sustained last season, there was still enough talent on the floor to give the smallish crowd something to cheer about.  The attendance could have have been influenced by a couple of different factors, given it was Friday night and the high school football teams are in their final playoff push, not to mention that the Cardinals were playing the Washington Nationals in the NLDS.  Still, it was a good time and I look forward to the NBA coming back to the 'Hall again next season.

     While I am on the subject of basketball, new Illini basketball coach John Groce and his team offically began practice last Friday, and are preparing for the Orange and Blue Scrimmage, which will be Monday evening at the Assembly Hall.  Groce will be taking seniors D. J. Richardson and Brandon Paul to Chicago next week for the annual Big Ten basketball media days at the Hyatt Regency O'Hare in suburban Chicago.  This event is always one of great interest to many, and in addition to the men being up there, all 12 of the women's teams will also be appearing, including new Illini women's coach Matt Bollant.  Bollant comes in with high expectations, having had great success at Wisconsin Green-Bay before taking the Illini job.  Bollant will be bringing with him Kersten Magrum, Amber Moore and Karisma Penn.  Look for a full report from media days in next week's blog.

     After losing four straight matches, Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team have managed to get back on the winning track, defeating Michigan State last Saturday evening in East Lansing, and then returning to Huff Hall on Wednesday evening to defeat the Northwestern Wildcats in 5 games.  The Illini have been having their ups and downs this season, so this mini winning streak is a breath of fresh air.  However, the Illini have a tough customer coming into Huff this weekend, as #4 Nebraska visits Champaign for a Sunday afternoon matinee (2:00 pm, ESPN2).  The Illini are 10-9 overall, but just 4-5 in the Big Ten ahead of the match against the Cornhuskers.

     With the regular season winding down for Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team, they have hit a rough patch of their own in the past week, now reeling after a third straight loss.  The Illini were swept last weekend in their trip north of the state border, as they lost 3-0 to Minnesota on Friday and were defeated 2-1 in double overtime to Wisconsin on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini were upset on Thursday evening at the Illinois Soccer Stadium by Northwestern 2-1, and will host Nebraska on Sunday (12:00 pm, no TV).  The Illini are 7-7-2 overall, and bring a 4-4-1 conference mark into the game with the Cornhuskers this weekend.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

It's a game of inches, not pinches!

     Here's a quick question to ponder for this week.  What is the difference between the Fighting Illini football team and a dollar bill?  Give up?  You can get four quarters out of a dollar bill!  That statement couldn't have been more evident last Saturday, as the Illini put forth a valiant effort at Wisconsin for three quarters, before once again faltering down the stretch to lose 31-14 to the Badgers.  The defense looked stable for the balance of the game, except for the final 15:00, in which there was a breakdown as the Badgers went to Montee Ball on the ground to put the game out of reach.  The Illini got on the board first to take a 7-0 lead, and went into the locker room at halftime feeling good about themselves tied at 7 apiece.  The third quarter was more of the same, as the Badgers tacked on a field goal to take a slim 10-7 lead, and then the fourth quarter happened.  Ball took over in the final stanza, scoring two touchdowns on the ground, while true freshman quarterback Joel Stave hit Jared Abbrederis on a 59 yard pass play for another score.  Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had two scores on the day, taking it in from 5 yards out for the game's initial score, and then hitting receiver Ryan Lankford for an 8 yard touchdown down the stretch to at least make the score respectable.  Scheelhaase finished the day completing 18 of 29 passes for 178 yards and the score, while taking the honors being the Illini's leading rusher with 84 yards on 22 carries and a score as well.  There has been some rumblings as of late from the Illini players about the choice of plays being run on offense, and there has also been some clamoring about not opening up the playbook more.  After all, what is Tim Beckman saving these plays for?  The Illini are 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the Leaders Division of the Big Ten, and in serious danger of seeing their two year bowl streak come to a screeching halt.  But were the signs of a collapse of this magnitude there when the season started?  I have mentioned here before that while the defense lost Whitney Mercilus to the NFL last season, they still had guys like Michael Buchanan, Jonathan Brown and Terry Hawthorne returning from a unit that was adequate a year ago.  Even though the Illini lost the last six regular season games in 2011, the defense kept them in most of those games and a couple of them could have gone the other way if a couple of plays were reversed.  This could be a lingering hangover from that collapse last season, and I still think it is not fair to place all of the blame on Beckman for this season.  After all, he is using the players that Ron Zook brought to the program, and we all know what kind of a coach the Zooker was.  It doesn't get any easier for the Illini this weekend, as they travel to the Big House in Ann Arbor to face the Michigan Wolverines (2:30 pm CT, ABC).  The Wolverines are 3-2 overall and 1-0 in the Legends Division of the Big Ten, and feature one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in all of college football in Denard Robinson.  Robinson can hurt you with his feet just as easy as his arm, and even though the Illini held him in check a year ago in Champaign, keeping him down this time will be a tall order.  The Illini come into the game a huge underdog, at least three touchdowns by some accounts.  There is not much hope of the Illini righting the ship this weekend, but stranger things have happened in Ann Arbor in the past.  I guess that is why they play the games.

     There was a lot of press given to Beckman and his little chewing tobacco incident before the Wisconsin game.  A secondary violation, Beckman admits that it is a bad habit that he has and they he won't let it be a distraction again.  Besides, Beckman has much larger problems to worry about right now with his team going down the proverbial drain before his very eyes.  True, he shouldn't have even done it in the first place, let alone on national television, but in this day and age of social media and cameras being everywhere, nothing is considered private any more, especially someone in the spotlight such as Beckman.

     With football season at the midway point of the season, some people in Illini Nation are beginning to turn their attention to the hardwood to see what new coach John Groce has in store for the Illini this season.  The Illini held their annual media day activities on Wednesday, and Groce met the press for the first time as new coach.  With practice scheduled to begin on Friday, everyone is chomping at the bit to get started, including seniors Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey.  The Illini lost a significant piece of their team last season, when Meyers Leonard left for the NBA after his sophomore season.  Groce knows that replacing Leonard will be a tall order (no pun intended), but feels that he has three capable bodies that should be able to shoulder the load.  Sophomores Nnanna Egwu and Ibby Djimde will be two of those players that will be trying to replace Leonard, as well as the aforementioned Griffey.  Newcomer Sam McLaurin, who transferred from Coastal Carolina, is another big body that could fill that spot if needed.  McLaurin took advantage of the new rule that allows a player to transfer to another school without penalty if that school has a graduate program that is of the student's interest.  If you remember, Sam Maniscalco took advantage of that rule last season, coming in from Bradley.  Groce also is aware that ball handling could be an issue, and is relying on sophomore Tracy Abrams to do the bulk of the point guard duties.  However, Paul and Richardson will be asked to do their share as well, especially since they both have both been in that position before.  Your first chance to see the 2012-13 Illini in action will be on Monday, October 22nd, when they participate in the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the Assembly Hall.

     When Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly saw the schedule for the 2012 season, he knew that a chance to repeat as national runner-up would be a tall order.  The Illini have been on a recent slide as of late, losing their fourth consecutive match, this time falling to Michigan in three straight game on Wednesday evening in Ann Arbor.  This followed a weekend that saw the Illini drop matches to ranked teams, first falling to Ohio State on Friday evening, then taking the top ranked Nittany Lions of Penn State to the limit, losing in 5 games.  The Illini will attempt to end the slide this weekend when they travel to East Lansing to battle the Michigan State Spartans on Saturday (5:30 pm, CT, no TV).  The Illini are currently 8-9 overall and 2-5 in the Big Ten.

     The Illini women's soccer team is having a much better season than their volleyball counterparts, currently sporting a 7-4-2 overall record, with a 4-1-1 conference mark.  The Illini have been idle since last Thursday, when they defeated Michigan State 3-2 at the Illini Soccer Stadium.  In the win over the Spartans, Vanessa DiBernardo scored a hat trick, and for her efforts, was named the Big Ten player of the week.  The Illini head north this weekend, traveling to Minneapolis on Friday evening (7:00 pm CT, no TV), then heading across the border to Wisconsin to Madison to face the Badgers on Sunday afternoon (4:00 pm CT, BTN).


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Off The Rails

     This 2012 Illini football season is eerily beginning to resemble the one that ended in 2011, and for many reasons, that is not a good sign.  When Tim Beckman was hired as head coach of the Illini back in December, he brought with him quite a bit of energy and also promising some up-tempo football.  What we have seen thus far couldn't be further from that.  The Illini's latest beatdown came at the hands of Penn State last Saturday 35-7, as the same problems that have plagued Illinois the past couple of seasons were very evident once again.  In essence, the Illini may have been "Zookered", and at times on Saturday, it looked as if the former coach was once again in charge of the offense and special teams.  Early in the Penn State loss, Tommie Davis mishandled a punt that resulted in the Nittany Lions getting very good field position.  The Illini defense managed to hold Penn State to a field goal, but yet another penalty, this one running into the kicker, gave the Nittany Lions another chance.  This time they scored a touchdown and for all intensive purposes the game was over.  So far in the 2012 season, things have not gone the way that most, including the players and coaches, thought that it would.  Beckman had said repeatedly before the season began that he was worried about depth issues, and while some injuries to key positions have further worsened this problem, a lot of younger players are seeing more of the field than they originally thought was possible.  Under interim coach Vic Koenning last year, the Illini looked pretty good in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl against UCLA, and with Koenning running the defense a year ago, things weren't that bad, despite the six consecutive losses to end the regular season.  That team lost Whitney Mercilus, Jeff Allen and A. J. Jenkins to the NFL, but it is unfathomable to think that those three losses could make this much of a difference.  In the Illini's three defeats in the 2012 season, they have not only been beaten, they have been beaten down, and in a bad way.  There is not any other way to say it than that.  At times it has been down right ugly, and it is starting to show in attendance, which was not great to begin with.  The last three games on the home schedule, Indiana, Purdue and Minnesota, do not scream sellouts, and judging from the recent performance of the football team, they won't even come close to getting Memorial Stadium half full for any of those games.

     The road doesn't get any easier for the Illini starting this Saturday, when they travel to Madison, Wisconsin for the first of two straight road games, when they take on the Wisconsin Badgers at Camp Randall Stadium (2:30 pm CT, ABC).  The Badgers come into the game with Illinois at 3-2 overall, and dropped their conference opener last Saturday in Lincoln, Nebraska to the Nebraska Cornhuskers 30-27.  Wisconsin lost a key member of their offense last season when Russell Wilson took his game to the NFL, but they still return Montee Ball, who figured prominently in their offense last season.  Ball did have an off-season incident where he was attacked, but appears to be healthy once again and ready to welcome the Illini to Madison.  Illinois, who comes into the game at 2-3 overall and also winless in the conference at 0-1, must figure out a way to get their offense moving, while at the same time finding a way to keep the Badgers off the field and off the scoreboard.  If these things do not occur, it will be another long day for the Illini and the fan base, which is already restless, will become even more so.

      The Illinois women's volleyball team made a trip to the Hoosier state this past weekend, and came away with a split, defeating Indiana in 4 games, while losing to Purdue in 5.  The Illini have struggled out of the gate this season with the much tougher schedule, and will return to Huff Hall this coming weekend to face #19 Ohio State on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, BTN.com),  then welcome top-ranked Penn State on Saturday evening (7:00 pm, CT, BTN.com). The Illini are currently 8-6 overall this season and 2-2 in the Big Ten.

     Janet Rayfield's Illini women's soccer team also traveled to Indiana this past weekend, and came away a bit more successful than their spiker counterparts, defeating Indiana 2-1 and tying Purdue 1-1. The Illini will return home on Thursday evening to face Michigan State in a game that will be televised on the Big Ten Network at 7:00 pm CT.  The Illini come into the game with the Spartans at 6-4-2 overall and 3-1-1 in the Big Ten.

   

Friday, September 28, 2012

Picking Up The Pieces

     As this 2012 football season moves forward for the Fighting Illini, the questions concerning the team continue to mount.  Witness the beating that the Illini took last Saturday when they were soundly defeated by Louisiana Tech 52-24 at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  Everyone knew what this Bulldogs team could do offensively, since they had scored 56 points in each of their first two games.  But for Illini coach Tim Beckman, his specialty is defense, and you figured that if the Illini could find a way to hold La. Tech down on offense, then they might have a chance.  It looked good at the start of the game, as the Illini scored first on a pass from Nathan Scheelhaase to Ryan Lankford.  It seemingly looked even better for Illinois near the half, going into the break trailing 21-17.  But, much like last season, turnovers at the wrong time seemed to befall the Illini, as they committed six miscues, including a muffed punt return that Louisiana Tech pounced on in the end zone.  You cannot keep giving teams as good as La. Tech chances and expect to win games.  Thus, the result was the blowout that it was.  It has generated talk around Illini Nation that Beckman may be in for a long season, but the season is only four games old and they are 2-2 heading into the Big Ten portion of the season, which begins this Saturday when the Illini host Penn State (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  Injuries have played a factor in the two losses, but that cannot be viewed as the only reason why the Illini suffered blowouts in both of their setbacks.  Scheelhaase is back, but not quite 100%, as evidenced by Beckman pulling him in the second half last Saturday in favor of Reilly O'Toole, who actually moved the Illini down the field at times.  The offensive line, which was a major concern to begin with, got a little worse with Graham Pocic nursing an injury, and Hugh Thornton suffering an injury of his own in the loss to La. Tech.

     This Saturday's Big Ten opener will be unique in many ways, not only because it will match up coaches in their first conference games of their coaching career, but more remembered for not seeing Joe Paterno on the Penn State sidelines for the first time in 46 years.  Since the scandal broke in Happy Valley, talk has focused on how the Nittany Lions will be received at each school they visit this season.  That topic has taken a place on the back burner for the time being, as the chatter this week has focused on the Illini's two recent blowout losses, and wondering what will happen this week.  Back during the summer, several Illini coaches made a trip out to Penn State to inquire about a player who eventually transferred to Illinois.  That talk has resurfaced this week, fueled mainly by some members of the Penn State media contingent that cannot seem to let well enough alone.  The Nittany Lions continue to be portrayed as the victim in this, and even though the Illini coaches went about the situation the correct and ethical way, there are some that still think that it was underhanded and wrong at what they did.  I say, let the teams decide it on the field and let well enough alone.  Penn State has their own problems to deal with, and will for the forseeable future.

     Don't fault Illini basketball coach John Groce for not landing the latest recruit that he went after, Demetrius Jackson of Mishawauka, Indiana.  After all, Notre Dame, who Jackson ultimately chose over the Illini, had been recruiting the guard since he was a freshman in high school.  Groce came in on the recruitment   late, and since he became head coach at Illinois, Groce has been turning heads with his work ethic in regards to recruiting.  After getting Kendrick Nunn's commitment a week ago, Illini Nation was abuzz with the possibility of landing Jackson or even Xavier Rathan-Mayes, another guard that is near the top of Groce's wish list.  The Rathan-Mayes recruitment is still ongoing, but it is clear that Groce intends to get Illinois back to relevancy sooner rather than later.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini volleyball team split their matches this past weekend, getting swept by Minnesota on Friday evening before rebounding to defeat Wisconsin in 5 sets on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini, who have endured a very tough schedule to begin the season, enter play this coming weekend at 7-5 overall and 1-1 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will make their annual trip through Indiana this weekend, traveling to Bloomington on Friday evening to battle the Indiana Hoosiers (6:00 pm, CT BTN), then will head north from there to West Lafayette on Saturday evening to take on the Boilermakers of Purdue (7:00 pm, CT  BTN).

     The Illini women's soccer team split their matches as well this past weekend, defeating Ohio State 1-0 on Friday night and then dropping a 4-0 contest to #11 ranked Penn State on Sunday afternoon.  The soccer team also make a swing through Indiana this weekend, traveling to Bloomington on Friday night to battle Indiana (6:30 pm CT, No TV), then finishing up their Indiana trip in West Lafayette on Sunday afternoon against Purdue (12:00 CT, No TV).  The Illini are currently 5-4-1 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's action.


Monday, September 17, 2012

Better Days Ahead

     The past weekend for sports on the University of Illinois campus couldn't have gone much better than it did.  From football to women's soccer, every team in action excelled, as well as one that occurred off of the field.  First things first with football.  After the "Debacle in the Desert" last Saturday evening in Arizona, the Illini gridders came back against a team that they should have had no problem in beating, which ended up being the case.  The Illini cruised from the start en route to a 44-0 victory over the Buccaneers of Charleston Southern University, a FCS opponent that hadn't won a game in the last 14 tries.  If ever there was a game where injuries didn't play a factor, this was the game to make that happen.  The Illini are a bruised and battered group, with the top four players on the offensive side of the football out with some sort of injury.  Of course, the marquee name on this list is Nathan Scheelhaase, who sustained an ankle sprain in the opening game win over Western Michigan, and hasn't played since. However, running back Josh Ferguson was held out of the game Saturday with concussion-like symptoms, while center Graham Pocic and wide receiver Darius Millines also are dealing with injuries and didn't see action.  According to Illini coach Tim Beckman, "it's something that I have never seen in all my years of coaching", he spoke about all of the injuries at the same time.  True, they probably didn't need these players against Charleston Southern, and it was a sigh of relief to see some of the younger players step up in the absence of so many starters.  True freshmen Dami Ayoola (RB) and Justin Hardee (WR) filled in nicely, both leading their respective positions in yards from scrimmage.  Ayoola finished the game with 55 yards on the ground, and scored on a 28 yard run that was a sight to behold.  Ayoola appeared to be tackled after a short gain, but somehow managed to slip away from his tacklers and bandied into the end zone for the score.  Hardee was the favorite target of quarterback Reilly O'Toole, catching 5 passes for 99 yards.  Although Hardee didn't find the end zone in the game, it was still a nice sight to see another young player doing well in Beckman's system.  Beckman has said along that if a freshman is good enough to play, then he will be seeing plenty of action.  Ayoola and Hardee definitely didn't disappoint as a result, and hopefully more of those days are to come from this duo.  Now that the Buccaneers are out of town, the real fun begins, as the next two weeks pose challenges of a different kind.  This coming Saturday's opponent, Louisiana Tech (7:00 pm, BTN), has a high powered offense, and leads the nation in red zone offense.  They have only scored 56 points in each of their first two games, but have allowed at least 37 points in those games as well.  So, could a shootout be in order?

     Does Beckman have a quarterback controversy on his hands?  With Scheelhaase still out and his status still uncertain for Saturday's game, it appears that Reilly O'Toole has the inside track, especially since he threw for 313 yards and  5 touchdowns  against Charleston Southern.  Granted, it was against an FCS opponent, but it still was good to see the Illini air it out like they did.  Beckman has said repeatedly that a player won't lose his starting status due to an injury, but it O'Toole begins to produce, it begs the question of who would be the better fit down the stretch.  One would think that Scheelhaase would be the logical choice, since he has the most experience, but if O'Toole can get the job done, a healthy O'Toole might be a better fit than a less than 100% Scheelhaase.  Whatever the case, Beckman won't tip his hand to anybody, especially the media.  At his weekly press luncheon on Tuesday, the question was posed about this very topic, and he stayed true to form by not elaborating on what he was thinking.  Why give the opponent any information?  We in the media will be the last ones to know anyway.

     Perhaps the most positive news of the entire weekend came off the playing field, as Simeon senior Kendrick Nunn gave an oral commitment to Illini coach John Groce to play basketball for the in-state team.  It was Nunn's official visit, and apparently he liked what he saw, because Twitter was abuzz with his decision minutes after the football game ended.  Since signing day is not until November, nothing is official until he is signed on the dotted line, but this is definitely a step in the right direction.  Now Illini Nation is hoping that he can bring some of the other talented players in the class with him to Champaign to get the Groce era off to a strong start.  Stay tuned for more on this story as it continues to develop.
 
     After a sluggish start to the season where they started off 3-4, Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team bounced back nicely in Austin, Texas at the Texas Invitational by defeating Cincinnati, LSU and the host Longhorns, who were ranked #6 in the nation.  The three wins gave the Illini the invitational title, and more importantly, vaulted them back over the .500 mark at 6-4 overall as the conference season begins this coming weekend when the Illini return to the confines of Huff Hall to battle Minnesota on Friday night and Wisconsin on Saturday evening.

     Coach Janet Rayfield returned from being an assistant coach on the U20 women's World Cup soccer team in Japan just in time to get their conference season off to a good start, defeating Iowa 2-1 on Sunday afternoon at the Illini soccer stadium in Urbana.  Vanessa DiBernardo, who was a member of that team, wasted little time in getting her first goal of the season, while freshman Nicole Breece was able to find the net for the eventual game winning goal.  The Illini continue their home cooking this coming weekend, when Ohio State pays a visit to Champaign on Friday night, followed by Penn State on Sunday.  The Illini are 4-3-1 on the season as the conference portion of the schedule begins.

   

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Ready......Set.......Go!

     The Tim Beckman era began in style last Saturday in Champaign, resulting in a 24-7 victory over the Western Michigan Broncos at Memorial Stadium.  But what exactly did we learn from the win?  Certainly it appears that the defense has left off from where it was last season, despite not having one of the stalwarts from that unit in Whitney Mercilus, who left a year early for the NFL.  The defensive unit had 4 takeaways on the day, including an interception by Michael Buchanan, who will undoubtedly follow in Mercilus' footsteps to the NFL next season.  There was also an interception that was returned for a touchdown by Ashante Williams. another good sign.  Offensively, the news wasn't as good.  It certainly started off promising, as Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase connected with wide receiver Ryan Lankford for a 64 yard touchdown in the game's opening few minutes.  After that play, however, the offense resembled one more suited for former coach Ron Zook, and not Beckman.  The news would get progressively worse for the Illini during the second half, as Scheelhaase would leave the game with an apparent ankle injury, giving way to sophomore Reilly O'Toole to guide the offense the remainder of the way.  Miles Osei, who was converted to a wideout during the Camp Rantoul workouts, would come into the game for the final few minutes to run out the clock and preserve the victory.  It was no secret that the offensive line was inexperienced, and up until the final few days leading up to the first game, undecided as to who would exactly start where.  Beckman is notorious for not tipping his hand in regards to information, especially if he knows that the opposing team could possible use that knowledge to their advantage during the game.  Beckman knew that Western Michigan would know his scheme pretty well, since he spent the last three years coaching against them at Toledo.  One thought possibly is that Beckman was not letting too much out of the bag for the Illini's next opponent, which is Arizona State on Saturday evening in Tempe, Arizona (9:30 pm CT, ESPN).  This will be a stern test for the Illini, since it is their first game on the road, as well as on the west coast, where the Illini haven't had the best of luck in the regular season in the past few years.  The Sun Devils  won their opening game as well, routing Northern Arizona 63-6 on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, behind a balanced attack on offense.  The Sun Devils rushed for 305 yards, while passing for 249 yards.  Gone is quarterback Brock Oswiler, and the new signal caller, Taylor Kelly, completed 15 of 19 passes for 247 yards and a touchdown.  This is obviously not as talented a team as the one that came to Champaign last season, but it is on the road and in a hostile environment, so nobody really knows what will happen.  I suspect that if Scheelhaase is good enough to play on Saturday night, then the Illini will probably be favored. Then again, nobody will know what the result will be, since Beckman will keep the verdict to himself up until kickoff.  Stay tuned.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini volleyball team has had an auspicious beginning to their season, losing their first two matches of the season in Dayton, Ohio, before coming back to defeat Ohio University to salvage one match in the opening weekend.  The Illini then hosted Iowa State in a rare two match series, winning one and losing one.  But don't let the 2-3 record fool you.  The Illini are still a talented squad that have a lot of potential as the season wears on.  The Illini will be back in action this weekend in Cincinnati when they take part in the Big Ten/Big East Challenge against host Cincinnati and also Louisville.

     Much better news on the soccer front, as Janet Rayfield's team is off to a 3-1-1 start to the 2012 season.  Wins over Western Michigan, UC-Santa Barbara and Milwaukee have propelled the Illini to a promising beginning.  The Illini will be in action as well this weekend, when they travel east to Winston-Salem, North Carolina to battle Virginia Tech and host Wake Forest.

      Even though the calendar says it is fall, basketball season is not far off, and the schedules for both John Groce's men's team and Matt Bollant's women's team have been announced.  Highlights of the men's schedule include trips to Hawaii for the Maui Invitational and to Spokane, Washington to take on Gonzaga.  The Illini's annual trips to St. Louis and Chicago are also on the docket, as is the Big 10/ACC Challenge against Georgia Tech at the Assembly Hall.  The women will make Assembly Hall their home for a good portion of the non-conference season, only playing away from home three times between October and January.

     Fall sports season is here, and it's time to get after it!  

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Camp Rantoul anyone?

     It's coming folks.  I'm talking about football season, and a good sign of this is the annual Big 10 Football Media Days in Chicago, which occurred last weekend at the Hyatt McCormick Place in Chicago.  Talk, as one would expect, focused on Penn State and all of the troubles they are enduring since the heavily imposed sanctions were levied a couple weeks ago.  This will be the second season of the split divisions since the addition of Nebraska at the start of the 2011 campaign, and once again, the conference will be split up into the Leaders and the Legends.  The Leaders division includes Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Ohio State, Penn State and Wisconsin, and within this division there are three new coaches and two teams on probation.  The Legends division contains Nebraska, Minnesota, Iowa, Michigan, Michigan State and Northwestern, and seems to be the more balanced of the two divisions.  Here is a quick preview of all 12 teams in the conference, and the outlook of the teams as the season begins to unfold.


     Tim Beckman was named the 23rd head coach of the Fighting Illini last season, and brings with him an energy level that has not been seen around the Urbana-Champaign campus in many years.  Beckman came to Illinois from Toledo, where he compiled a 21-16 record over 3 seasons. including 2 bowl appearances.  The Illini lost a couple of key players last season, most notably Whitney Mercilus, but return a lot of the offensive unit, including quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase.  The offensive line, which protects Scheelhaase, will be inexperienced, as only Hugh Thornton and Graham Pocic return from a year ago.  Beckman has said time and again that the best 11 athletes will play, even if that means having three tight ends on the field at the same time.  Also, look for Terry Hawthorne to see some action on the offensive side of the ball at receiver, in addition to his normal position of cornerback.  The Illini are coming off of back-to-back bowl victories for the first time in school history, so the pressure will be on for Beckman to keep the Illini moving in the right direction.

     Indiana finished 1-11 last season in Kevin Wilson's first season, one that he would like to forget.  The Hoosiers return seven players on the offensive side of the football, including quarterback Tre Roberson and center Will Matte.  Defensively, the Hoosiers welcome back eight starters from a year ago, led by Adam Replogle and Larry Black Jr.  Indiana has the potential to start off the 2012 season with a couple of victories, but getting back to respectability may take longer than Wilson intends.

     Purdue comes into the 2012 season brimming with the most confidence that they have had in quite some time, thanks in part to a lot of letterwinners returning on both sides of the ball.  The Boilermakers will be stacked on offense, especially at the quarterback position, as all three signal callers return from a year ago.  Starter Caleb TerBush will start the season behind center, but don't be surprised if Coach Danny Hope uses sixth year redshirt senior Robert Marve or junior Rob Henry at least part of the time back there.  Marve saw considerable action at the position in 2011, and Henry is versatile enough to play any of the offensive skill positions, according to Hope.  Defensively, the Boilers return a stable of athletes, led by Ricardo Allen and Kawaan Short.  Allen, diminutive in stature, returns to anchor the secondary while Short patrols the defensive line.  Frankie Williams also returns for Purdue on defense, a unit that has played together for a while and are beginning to come together as a group.  Purdue finished 7-6 in 2011, including a 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the Little Ceasars Pizza Bowl in Detroit, Michigan.



     Wisconsin is coming off one of the more successful seasons in their recent history, defeating Michigan State 42-39 in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.  That win propelled them into the Rose Bowl, where they were defeated 45-38 by Oregon.  The Badgers, under coach Bret Bielema, return several starters from a year ago, including running back Montee Ball.  However, earlier this week, Ball was involved in an altercation on the Wisconsin campus where he was jumped by several men.  Bielema said this week that Ball probably won't be ready for the start of training camp, which begins on Monday.  That would be a critical blow to the Badgers if Ball isn't ready for the start of the regular season, because they relied on him so much last year.  Also returning is wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, who caught 55 passes for 933 yards and scored 8 touchdowns.  The Badgers go into the season as the favorite to win the Leaders Division.

     Ohio State will have a familiar face on the sidelines this year, as Urban Meyer comes out of retirement to coach the Buckeyes.  Meyer, who led Florida to two national championships, walked away from the Gators and into the broadcast booth, where he stayed for only a year when Columbus came calling.  The Buckeyes will be ineligible for a bowl game this season due to their punishment for the "tattoo gate" and the selling of memorabilia from other games.  Ohio State finished 6-7 in 2011, including a 24-17 loss to Meyer's former team, the Florida Gators in the Gator Bowl.  Gone are a lot of the players that put the Buckeyes on probation, but quarterback Braxton Miller returns, as does fullback Zach Boren and tight end Jake Stoneburner.  Butkus Award candidate Etienne Sabino returns at linebacker to lead the defense, as well as defensive linemen Jonathan Hankins and John Simon.  With no postseason aspirations or a chance at the Big Ten title game this season, the Buckeyes will aim for a successful season and hope for the best until they are eligible again.

     Then there is the case of Penn State.  So much has happened in State College over the past year, with the Jerry Sandusky sexual abuse scandal that led to the firing of legendary coach Joe Paterno.  Paterno would die nearly three months later, due to complications of cancer, among other things.  The sanctions that followed in the wake of the scandal has pretty much crippled this program, as one of the stipulations included  players being able to leave the school and transfer to another school and be immediately eligible without penalty.  Several players have taken advantage of the situation, including tailback Silas Redd, who transferred to USC earlier in the week.  The Nittany Lions finished 10-4 in 2011, including a 30-14 loss to Houston in the Ticket City Bowl in Dallas.  However, what is to come for the Nittany Lions will further define the program, because after all, this whole situation could have been avoided, but nothing was done.


      Michigan appears to be the odds on favorite to come out on top in the Legends Division, since they return quite a few starters on both sides of the ball, led by quarterback Denard Robinson and wide receiver Roy Roundtree.  Running back Fitzgerald Toussiant also returns for the Wolverines, who finished 11-2 in 2011 under first year coach Brady Hoke.  The Wolverines defeated Virginia Tech 23-20 in the Allstate Sugar Bowl Classic in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Hoke expects more from his Wolverines in 2012.  The offensive line also returns three players from a year ago, and defensively, Michigan returns their entire linebacking corps, as well as three quarters of their secondary.  The Wolverines have high expectations for this season, and don't be surprised if they are representing their side of the conference in the Big Ten title game come December.

      Michigan State is coming off an exceptionally successful season on 2011, finishing the season 11-3, including a trip to the Big Ten Championship game against Wisconsin, a game they lost 42-39.  The Spartans bounced back from that loss to defeat Georgia 33-30 in triple overtime in the Outback Bowl, but lost a key member of their offensive unit when quarterback Kirk Cousins graduated.  Michigan State will have a new signal caller under center for the first time since 2009 this season, as young Andrew Maxwell takes over for Cousins, who is now in the NFL.  The Spartans return most of their running backs from a year ago, but must replace three wide receivers and two tight ends, most notably wideout B. J. Cunningham, who was one of Cousins' more prolific targets.  The offensive line loses nobody, so it will remain one of the strongest in the conference and should give Maxwell a lot of protection.  Defensively, the Spartans lost two interior linemen from last season, but return their entire linebacking nucleus, making them still a force to be reckoned with.  The goal is still to get back to the title game, but with a lot of new faces in East Lansing, that might be a tall order.

      Nebraska finished their first season in the Big Ten 9-4, including a 30-13 loss to South Carolina in the Capital One Bowl, and look to contend once again for the Legends Division crown.  The Cornhuskers return their starting quarterback Taylor Martinez, as well as their top running back of a year ago Rex Burkhead. Nebraska returns a bunch of offensive linemen, but only three that had starting experience.  Defensively, they return three players that started a year ago, while the linebackers return intact, including senior Will Compton.  Coach Bo Pelini will have the Cornhuskers ready to play, but a lot depends on Martinez and how well he can generate the offense in Lincoln.  That will be the determining factor in how successful they will be in 2012.

      Minnesota is coming off of a disappointing 3-9 season in Coach Jerry Kill's first season as bench boss of the Golden Gophers.  Kill, who battled some health concerns in 2011, is back at full strength, and he hopes for improvement for his football team as well.  Quarterback MarQueis Gray returns for Minnesota from a year ago, but he lost his top receiver DaJon McKnight.  The offensive line will be young, as several redshirt freshmen and sophomores dot the roster.  Defensively, the Gophers are a little more experienced with depth, but still will need to make plays.  The Gophers begin the season ahead of most of the rest of the conference when they battle UNLV on Thursday, August 30th.

       Iowa enters the 2012 season with the most experienced coach in the conference in Kirk Ferentz, who is beginning his 14th season in Iowa City.  Longevity has been the norm for the Hawkeyes, as Ferentz succeeded Hayden Fry, who was at Iowa 20 years.  The running back position will be a concern for the Hawkeyes this year, but they return their starting quarterback James Vandenberg from a team that finished 7-6 overall, including a 31-14 loss to Oklahoma in the Insight Bowl.  Ferentz says a lot of the positions, both offensively and defensively, are up for grabs.  Iowa has the potential to contend for the Legends Division crown with Michigan and Michigan State, but they will need to have some things fall their way if that is to happen.

      Northwestern, or who Tim Beckman commonly refers to as "that team up north", is coming off of a 6-7 season, which saw them qualify for their fourth straight bowl game, the first time that has ever happened in Evanston.  The Wildcats lost that game 33-22 to Houston in the Meineke Car Care Bowl in Houston, Texas, but according to Pat Fitzgerald, they are in pretty good shape to get back to a bowl game again.  Leading the Wildcats under center will be Kain Colter, who saw some action back at the position a year ago when starter Dan Persa went down with an injury.  Northwestern had an up and down season, starting the year off 2-0, then losing five straight games before winning four of their final five games to become bowl eligible.  The key to the Wildcats continuing this recent success will be doing the things that Coach Pat Fitzgerald has instilled on them in the past.  Plus, a little luck wouldn't hurt as well.

     Back to the Illini for a minute, since this blog is called The Illini Guy Report.  Coach Beckman started their pre-season workouts on Monday at Rantoul, and in contrast to the past few years, they are only going for one week up north.  Also, there is no scrimmage this year at Rantoul, but according to Beckman, they may revisit that idea in future years.  "I really like it, it reminds me of past seasons going to Cleveland Browns training camp.  There is really nothing like it", Beckman said on Tuesday after practice. The workouts are free and open to the public, and they will remain in Rantoul until Sunday, when they will return to Champaign for the Illini media day, followed by Fan Appreciation Day.  Fans will have the opportunity to meet players and coaches, and get autographs from them from 5-6 pm on the new turf of Memorial Stadium.  Practice resumes on Monday in Champaign, which will then be closed to the media and public.

   

Monday, July 9, 2012

Dog Days Of Summer

     Now that we are beyond the July 4th holiday, we have hit the midway point of the summer season, and while some of us are still focused on baseball, others have begun to explore other sports, namely football and basketball.  July also means there will be an Olympiad this year, and this week I had the distinct pleasure to talk with former University of Illinois track star and Jamaican Olympic superstar Andrew Riley (right).  Riley will compete in the 110 meter hurdles for his native country, something he says "is a very great honor".  Riley is very humble, and owes a lot of his success to his coaches, Mike Turk on the men's side, and former Olympian Tonja Buford-Bailey, the women's coach,  who has been helping him with the hurdles for the past couple of years.  It was actually Jim Angel who recruited Andrew to Illinois, after a previous athlete in Jamaica told him about Riley and introduced him to Angel, the stage was set for him to come to Champaign and compete in the Big Ten.  Jamaica is probably more known for their world-class sprinter Usain Bolt, but it will be Riley that will be competing in the hurdles for the small nation.  "To represent my country means a lot to me, and it is always an honor to compete for your home nation, your birthplace", Riley proudly admitted.  Riley has continued training at the University of Illinois track, and will continue to do so until he leaves for training camp in a week.  With the opening ceremonies about two weeks away in London, Riley feels he is ready, but still would like to get the most out of the next couple of weeks. 


     Riley is not the only one headed to London that has Illinois ties.  Former Illini basketball standout Deron Williams was named this past weekend to the USA basketball squad, while Robert Archibald, another former Illinois hoops star, will compete for Great Britian's basketball team.  The sense of pride of the Orange and Blue being represented across the pond cannot be measured, and if these athletes are fortunate enough to win some medals, that will make the achievement that much more gratifying.

     New Illinois basketball coach John Groce once again has a complete basketball staff, and judging from the reaction of the latest hire, it seems that it is a match made in heaven.  When Isaac Chew was hired two months ago to be the Chicago contact in recruiting, all signs pointed to Groce making a slam dunk hire.  However, Buzz Williams came in and made Chew an offer that he couldn't refuse, and all of a sudden, there was another opening.  Enter Paris Parham, who spent the last five years at Illinois State as a part of Tim Jankovic's staff in Normal.  But when Jankovic was offered a coach-in-waiting position on Larry Brown's staff at SMU, that left a lot of uncertainty with Parham.  I also had the opportunity to speak with Parham this past week, and it appeared that he wanted the job all along, even when Chew was hired.  Parham also has strong Chicago ties, having played in the Public League, so he is a natural fit for the Illini to get their foot back into the Chicago area.  "I would have crawled on my hands and knees backward to get to Champaign", Parham noted when talking about his feeling for the job when it was offered to him.  "Initially, I thought I would have been on the staff with Jamaal (Walker), and luckily someone moved out, and I moved in, and here I am", Parham added.  So, it sounds like ultimately the right guy ended up being hired, although it will be a few months until we can actually see it working.

     We are now just about one month from the start of Camp Rantoul and the beginning of the Tim Beckman era at Illinois.  Big Ten Football media days will take place at the end of the month in Chicago, and I am sure that most of the talk up at the Hyatt Regency at McCormick Place will center around the scandal involving Penn State.  New coach Bill O'Brien certainly has an unenviable situation on his hands in State College, and this story, although exposed, is far from over.  Stay tuned for complete coverage from media days, as well as  a complete wrap-up of the Illini athletes in the Summer Olympics in London.  As for now, enjoy the rest of the summer, because fall will be here before you know it!