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, January 26, 2012

Now What?

Over the next couple of weeks, we will see just what kind of a basketball team Bruce Weber has this year. The Illini are currently on a two game losing streak, and enduring a tough task on Saturday when they travel to Minneapolis, Minnesota to battle the Golden Gophers of Minnesota at Williams Arena, commonly known as "The Barn" (7:00 pm CT, BTN). After the Illini lost at Penn State back last Thursday, the Illini came back home to face the Wisconsin Badgers, who have had an up and down season of their own in Big Ten Conference play this year. The Illini could have earned some redemption with a win over the Badgers, but instead, fell for the first time at the Assembly Hall, losing 67-63 to Bo Ryan's boys. We all know that there is some talent on this Illini team, but a lot of it is buried on the bench, not getting a chance to show what they can do. It has been a pattern of Weber's to stick with a certain lineup and ignore other players that could do as adequate of a job, and this year is no exception. Another habit of Weber's is to not mix up different defenses during a game. You see a lot of the successful teams adjust to what the other team is doing during the course of a game, but not Weber. He pretty much sticks with what he thinks works, regardless if it acutally does or not. Freshmen like Myke Henry, Mike Shaw, and Nnanna Egwu have had trouble getting into games since the Big Ten season started, even though Weber vowed early in the season that he would employ a rotation of 10 or even 11 guys. Egwu, who still moves up and down the court very well for a big man, has spelled center Meyers Leonard at times, but has not been on the floor very much with Leonard, instead settling for a relief role. Now, this type of behavior is what can lead players to transfer, as may have been the case with Crandall Head, who left the team at the end of the fall semester.
Shaw, who looked good in the non-conference season, has been buried on the bench as of late, and in the case of Henry, has proven that he is not afraid to take shots once in a while. Even Weber himself has said that he wants to get Henry and Egwu more minutes on the floor. Well, I have a solution for this: THEN PLAY THEM! It is understandable that Tyler Griffey, who lost his starting spot that he held earlier in the season, has been relegated to bench duty, because Griffey has lost confidence. After all, Griffey was one of the best players during the Illini's trip to Italy earlier in the summer, but Joseph Bertrand has since earned a lot more playing time, as has freshman Tracy Abrams, who is coming into his own as a player. The recent events haven't stopped the catcalls and chatter for Weber's job, as was evidenced at the 'Hall on Sunday when the Illini fell to the Badgers. But, after all, the Illini are 15-5 overall and 4-3 in the league, mired among several other teams in the middle of the pack in a very competitive Big Ten race. After the game at Minnesota, the schedule gets a whole lot tougher over the next couple of weeks, as Michigan State and Northwestern come to Champaign, followed by road trips to Indiana and Michigan. Over the course of the next month, teams will continue to beat themselves up, which, in turn, will change the standings even more than they are now. So, it's anybody's guess who will be the top 4 seeds when the Big Ten Tournament begins in March at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. It's just too early to tell right now.
Different week, same result for the Fighting Illini women's basketball team, as once again they were in a ballgame, but ultimately fell, losing 96-84 to Ohio State on Sunday in Columbus. Jolette Law, who continues to press on despite all of the unfortunate luck that has befallen her team, tries to keep her team motivated, but that is a very hard sell. Karisma Penn led the Illini with 23 points, and the 84 points was a team high for the season. However, the Illini fell to 6-14 overall and still remain winless in the conference at 0-7. The Illini will get a chance to get that elusive first Big Ten win of the season on Thursday evening when they travel to East Lansing to battle the Michigan State Spartans at the Breslin Center (5:00 pm CT, BTN). Something has got to give to get this program back on the track, and it is becoming more obvious that Law is not the answer to this puzzling question.

New Illini football coach Tim Beckman will unveil his first recruiting class with a public event to take place on Wednesday, February 1 at 4:30 pm. The new coaching staff will welcome fans to the Assembly Hall, and the unveiling will take place at 5:30 as the new class is announced on the video scoreboard. The event is free and open to the public, and parking for the event is free as well.

Friday, January 20, 2012

What's Next?

This Fighting Illini basketball team is getting impossible to figure out. How can a team look so good in defeating one of the elite teams in the country one week, then struggle mightily against one of the bottom feeders of the conference the next? I guess you can chalk it up to being just a couple weeks in this crazy journey known as Big Ten Basketball. After the Illini's impressive upset win over Ohio State last week, the team had a rare 9 day break before playing their next game, a trip to Happy Valley to take on a Penn State team that has been a thorn in the side of Bruce Weber coached teams ever since he has been in Champaign. Granted, the break did some good in getting a couple of players healed that had previous injuries, but it also allowed for some outside distractions to creep in, most notably the lauding of the team to a higher standard after the win over the Buckeyes. It was just one game folks, and if you look around the Big Ten this season, it is happening all over the league. Indiana losing to Nebraska in Lincoln, Purdue falling to Penn State by 20 points in State College, and Wisconsin dropping back to back games, including one at the home in the comfy confines of the Kohl Center, a place where they very seldom ever lose. So, this trip to Penn State had disaster written all over it, and after the Nittany Lions came away with a 54-52 victory, the fears were justified. The Illini didn't play very well, and as has been the case for most of this season, and seasons past under Weber, play to the level of their competition. Good wins over Gonzaga and Ohio State have brought out the best in the Illini players, while listless perfomances against UNLV at the United Center in Chicago and home games against St. Bonaventure and Nebraska, in which the Illini won, but barely squeaked by, have given Illini Nation cause for concern. A lot has been written about Weber and his coaching philosophies, and a specific quote after the game against Penn State really brings this argument to the forefront. Weber was quoted after the game by saying "I didn't coach well, and we didn't play well". WHAT? How in the world can your players rally around when you have a coach that is admitting things like this! Weber has always been known as saying what is on his mind without disdain for his players or whomever he is talking about, but this little comment really strikes me in the worst way possible. You call a timeout with 4.5 seconds remaining in the game to apparently set up a play, and what happens when you come out of the huddle? You put the ball in the hands of Sam Maniscalco, who has been injured for a few games and hasn't been shooting the ball well either. Instead, why not give the ball to Brandon Paul, who followed up his record setting 43 point performance with 20 points. Granted, given Paul's turnover tendencies, he may have not been able to get a shot off, but at least you could have made a better effort than what was put forth. With the loss, the Illini fall to 15-4 overall and drop to 4-2 in the Big Ten. There is quite a logjam at the top of the league, with 5 teams now having 2 conference losses, which makes any and every game that much more critical. The Illini don't have much time to ponder this loss, as they get right back into action on Sunday when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to the Assembly Hall (1:00 pm CT, BTN). The Badgers are 15-5 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten. The Badgers have endured their own adversity this season, losing 3 straight games at one point this season, including back to back games in Madison. Bo Ryan always seems to get his guys ready for the Illini, and now more than ever, it is imperative that the Illini protect the home court and get a win.

The way the Big Ten is shaping up, it promises to be a dogfight down the stretch as many as 8 or 9 teams are within a game or two of the lead in the conference. Ohio State still looks like the team to beat, as they are nearly flawless in Columbus, but lurking in the background is Michigan State, who always seems to be in the hunt under legendary coach Tom Izzo. Indiana has struggled in the past couple weeks, being replaced in the standings by Michigan, who is playing perhaps the best basketball of anyone in the conference over the past couple of weeks. Illinois is still near the top, but have the most difficult part of their schedule coming up after this week. Purdue and Wisconsin have struggled at times this season, and are still within striking distance of the leaders, and a good week by either team could elevate them further up the standings. Northwestern seems to not know which side of the ledger they are on, looking really good at times, while other times deserving to be on the bottom tier. Speaking of the bottom tier, Minnesota, Nebraska, Penn State and Iowa seem to have that covered. But, as we have seen so far this season, in the Big Ten, anything is possible.

Same story for Jolette Law and the Illini women's basketball team, who lost again, this time at home to Penn State 71-65, to fall to 6-13 overall and winless in the conference at 0-6. Now, I have said this before, but all you have to do is look around the Assembly Hall at women's home games to realize that a change is needed. When you can stop and count the people in attendance physically, you need help as a program. Law went barefoot for a promotion to bring attention to a cause of children that don't have or can't afford shoes, but in the end, it didn't matter, since the Illini still went down to defeat. True, the Illini have been in most of these games, and they are remaining competitive, but sooner or later, you would think that they would find a way to win one of these close games. Right now, it is looking as if the Illini will once again miss the NCAA Tournament, something that is just unacceptable at this point.

New Illini football coach Tim Beckman has completed the hiring of his first staff, completing that process by hiring Tim Banks of Cincinnati as defensive coordinator. Signing day for this upcoming season is February 1, so they assembled the staff just in time. So, the complete list of coaches for the 2012 are as follows:

Coaching Staff Assignments
Tim Beckman - head coach
Tim Banks - defensive coordinator/safeties
Billy Gonzales - co-offensive coordinator/receivers
Chris Beatty - co-offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
Luke Butkus - offensive line
Steve Clinkscale - cornerbacks
Keith Gilmore - defensive line
Alex Golesh - tight ends/specialists/recruiting coordinator
Tim Salem - running backs/special teams coordinator
Mike Ward - linebackers

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Breath of Fresh Air

I guess that's why they play the games. It's become increasingly difficult to figure out this year's installment of the Fighting Illini men's basketball team. Some games they look like world beaters, other times they look like doormats. Take the case of the last two games for the Illini, both of them at home in the friendly confines of the Assembly Hall. Nebraska paid its first visit to Champaign as a member of the Big Ten, and almost left town with their first win of the season. Now, granted, the Illini haven't been setting the world on fire with their play on the court this season, and the game against the Cornhuskers proved that to be true. The Illini needed a strong second half surge to finally escape with a 59-54 win. The win wasn't pretty by any stretch of the imagination, and the performance left those in attendance wondering what the Ohio State Buckeyes would do to Illinois when they came to visit later the next week. Coach Bruce Weber has taken a lot of criticism this season, and deservedly so. His substitution pattern has left a lot to be desired lately, and that could have been one of the reasons that Crandall Head left the team at the semester break.

Ohio State came into Champaign ranked #5 in the nation, and boasting one of the more talented teams in the country. Nobody gave the Illini much of a chance against the Buckeyes, but as they have proved time and again, they play to the level of their competition. I don't think anyone expected what actually happened, because it is the stuff that fairy tales are made of. Brandon Paul went absolutely ballistic on the Buckeyes, scoring 43 points, including the Illini's final 15, to single-handedly lead Illinois to a 79-74 upset in front of a near capacity crowd. What made Paul's performance so phenomenal was that he only took 15 shots, making 11 of them. He was 8-10 from beyond the arc, and 13-15 from the free throw line. Turnovers continue to be an issue for Brandon though, as he committed 7 of them to lead the team in that category. The outburst by Paul was the most points scored by an Illini player since Andy Kaufmann dropped 46 back in 1990. Dave Downey still holds the all-time single game record for points scored by an Illini player with 53 points. Still, Paul's huge night will go down as one of the all-time moments in Assembly Hall history. The Illini improve to 15-3 overall with the win, and remain near the top of the Big Ten Conference at 3-1 overall. The Illlini get some time to rejuvenate themselves, since they don't play next until next Thursday when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions (8:00 pm central time, ESPN2). The time off will give D. J. Richardson and Sam Maniscalco a chance to heal their injuries, so they will be ready to go when the meat of the Big Ten schedule hits.

Tuesday night was also a special night for a former coach of the Illini, as he was honored with the first banner to be raised in the Assembly Hall for the great coaches. Lou Henson, who turned 80 on Tuesday, was recognized at halftime, and judging by the reaction to the crowd, is still widely appreciated by Illini Nation. It was a fitting tribute to a legend, and only one honor is missing from the Henson resume, and that is a spot in the Hall of Fame. Here's hoping that Lou is alive to see it happen.

The Illini women's basketball team has to be the unluckiest bunch in recent memory. After falling to Purdue on a last second shot at the buzzer, the Illini have lost to Iowa 69-62 in overtime, and Wisconsin 70-67. All three of those games could have easily been wins, but they were not, and as a result, the Illini sit at 6-11 overall and still winless in the Big Ten at 0-4. Looks like some things never change.

New football coach Tim Beckman continues to assemble his staff, and reports are that LSU receivers coach Billy Gonzalez will be named offensive coordinator as early as Friday. Beckman needs to get his staff completed in order to go out on the road recruiting. Signing Day is early next month, and with a lot of commitments left from the Zook era, there is plenty of work to do.