Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Friday, 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

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