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.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

And, so the freefall continues. It has now been a week since the now infamous Bruce Weber press conference, where he essentially let everything out about his feelings, calling out a few of the players on the Illini team in the process. During that span, the Illini dropped a home game to Purdue (the game that brought on Weber's rant), got blown out at Nebraska by 23 points, and then went to Ohio State and promptly got drilled on national television. These are certainly not good days around the Illinois basketball program, and there is plenty of blame to go around. You have to blame Weber for a lot of this, throwing his players under the bus with those comments, and emotions coming to the forefront as a result. During Saturday's loss at Nebraska, center Meyers Leonard was shown on camera crying on the bench, being consoled by freshman Myke Henry and assistant coach Wayne McClain. You could also blame the players, because after all, they are the ones out on the floor giving the effort, or in the case of the past couple of weeks, not giving the effort. You see guys like Leonard, whom the NBA scouts have deemed a mid to late first round draft pick, trying out there, but the mental composure of Leonard the other night may be a concern to people wanting him to succeed at the next level. After all, these are 19-22 year old kids that we are talking about. Weber has said before that one of the problems is that Tracy Abrams has become the leader, and he is a freshman. A FRESHMAN! Nobody seems to want to step up in the locker room and take ownership of this current downfall, but Abrams has. That takes guts. Another person that you can place the blame on is former athletic director Ron Guenther. After all, it was Guenther who extended these contracts of not only Weber, but former football coach Ron Zook, as well as women's basketball coach Jolette Law. You could very well see a scenario at the end of the basketball season where the football coach, and both the men's and women's basketball coaches will be fired in the same calendar year. I am not sure that there is another instance of this anywhere in recent memory in Division I, maybe not ever. The buyouts alone for these three coaches are staggering, with Zook's totaling $2.6 million for the remainder of his contract, Weber's will be somewhere around $3.5 million, if he is indeed let go at the end of the season, and Law's is not as much, at around $310,000. You just look at those figures and wonder just what Guenther was thinking about when he made those deals.

A little over a month ago, the Illini were riding high, on top of the conference standings, and sporting a 15-3 overall record after just defeating Ohio State, who was ranked in the top 10 at the time. Since that time, the Illini have gone just 1-9, the only win coming against Michigan State, who ironically, was also a top 10 team when the Illini beat them. Now, the Illini are 16-12 overall, and near the bottom of the Big Ten at 5-10. Coming into this season, it was unfathomable to think that the basketball team could trump the disastrous slide that the football team achieved, but it has happened. Playing their way off the proverbial NCAA "bubble", and now fighting for a NIT bid, the "Slidin' Illini" have 3 games left in the regular season to salvage something before the Big Ten Tournament. Believe it or not, if the Illini win their last 2 games at home, and somehow, some way, find their game at Wisconsin in the final game of the season, they will STILL have an outside chance to make the Big Dance. This scenario is very unlikely given the recent struggles of this team, but if the players decide to finally put it together, anything is possible. The first chance comes on Sunday when Iowa comes to the Assembly Hall (5:00 pm, BTN). I'm not saying that this is even a possibility, it is just food for thought. It is hard to fathom a team that lost as bad as they did at Nebraska even having a remote chance to redeem themselves, but first things first, they need to beat Iowa. However, it is probably too late for Weber, regardless.

The Illini women's basketball team wraps up the regular season this weekend when they travel to Madison, Wisconsin to battle the Badgers. Even though their record is not good (11-17 overall, 5-10 in the Big Ten), they have at least been respectable recently, unlike their male counterparts. Given the past history for the women, they tend to play their best basketball at the end of the season, and with their Big Ten Tournament next weekend at Bankers' Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, they could make some noise. However, it is probably too late for Law, as the record has not indicated that she should stay around. Athletic Director Mike Thomas has repeatedly stated that he will evaluate all coaches at the end of the season and look at "the full body of work", and the lack of NCAA Tournament appearances may be all he needs to see. Hmmm. Sounds like a familiar trend to me.

Finally, even though it feels like football weather outside, Tim Beckman won't have his team take the field for nearly 5 months, but ticket prices for the upcoming season were announced on Wednesday, and the prices have actually come down since last season. Sideline season seats average about $33 per ticket, while single-game tickets for Big Ten games will be $50 (non-conference games are half of that at $25). Seems like the athletic department wants fans to come out to games, and are afraid that a lackluster home schedule will prevent them from doing so. Spring practices begin in March, so it is not that far off.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

On The Hot Seat.......Ouch!

This Fighting Illini men's basketball team is getting impossible to figure out. After wins at home over top 10 teams Ohio State and Michigan State, it appeared that the Illini had turned a corner and was going to salvage what has been a rather tumultuous ride. But then, losses at Penn State, followed by a home defeat to in-state rival Northwestern once again has cast dark shadows over the program and once again put coach Bruce Weber on the proverbial hot seat. Much like what happened last November when Ron Zook was fired as football coach after 6 straight losses that followed a 6-0 start, the basketball team has lost six of their last 7 games, and currently have a 16-9 overall record, but reeling at just 5-7 in the rough-and-tumble Big Ten Conference. Athletic Director Mike Thomas has been non-committal on Weber's status, instead taking the stance that he will "evaluate the entire body of work and make a decision at season's end". By entire body of work, Thomas means the past several seasons, not just the 2011-12 campaign. Since Dee Brown left the program, the Illini have struggled in Big Ten play, compiling a 49-51 mark in that time frame. This doesn't bode well for Weber, who has endured a great amount of scrutiny this season with some of his coaching decisions. Also, during this period of time, several key recruits have left the program for various reasons, namely Crandall Head and Jereme Richmond, and the Chicago pipeline is producing some top level talent, but very little of that is ending up in Champaign-Urbana.

So what needs to be done? For starters, the players that have been producing all season need to all have good games at the same time. Brandon Paul has been very effective scoring over the past couple months, but turnovers remain a major concern for the junior from Gurnee. D. J. Richardson has seemed to disappear, and needs to regain the form that he had as a sophomore. Meyers Leonard, the lone remaining recruit from the 2011 class, appears to be NBA ready, but his maturity level needs to improve in order to excel at the next level. Weber continues to have a short leash for players that get two fouls in the first half, pulling them from the game and letting them sit on the bench for the remainder of the half. This disturbs the flow of the game, and the chances of the player getting a third foul is low, but until Weber takes a chance and lets this happen, we will only continue to speculate. In the loss on Sunday to Michigan (70-61), Leonard scored the first 4 points of the game, and was looking like he was going to have a huge game with a decided size advantage down low. But, two fouls later, he was out of the game, and throwing in halftime, was sidelined for nearly an hour. When he did get back into the game, he was taken off of the block inside and just added a free throw the rest of the way. Things have to change, and they have to change fast if the Illini are going to salvage the season and once again make the NCAA Tournament. The next two games become must-wins for the Illini, with the first of those coming on Wednesday night when the Illini return to action at the Assembly Hall to face the Purdue Boilermakers (7:30 pm, BTN). Purdue won the first meeting of the season back on New Year's Eve 75-60 in West Lafayette, and currently have a six game winning streak against the Illini. Illinois needs to win their remaining games at home, as well as take one or two more on the road. On Saturday, they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska for the first time since the 1975 season to face a Cornhusker squad that is last in the league, but plays well enough at home to make it interesting. But, first things first, they need to take care of business against Purdue, or else the outcries for Weber will only continue to get louder with increased fervor.

After several near misses early in Big Ten play, Jolette Law finally has her Illini women's basketball team playing better basketball, winning 3 of their last 4 games, including an exciting 66-65 victory over #10 Ohio State at home. The Illini also defeated Indiana 61-60 in Bloomington on a last second shot by Karisma Penn, and even though the Illini's record is still not impressive at 10-16 overall and 4-9 in Big Ten play, they are at least making progress and staying competitive. This potential makes them a dangerous team in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, a role that they have become all too familiar with over the past few seasons. That road is actually the only way that they will be getting into post-season action, but it is not out of the question. AD Thomas will also assess this body of work at the end of the season and make a decision. Thomas has said that he wants his athletic teams to compete for championships, and the way to make that happen is to make sure that he has the right people at the top to make that a possibility. Stay tuned, because this could get very interesting down the stretch.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A New Beginning

I had intended on paying tribute to Joe Paterno this week in place of talking about Illini sports, but there was so much going on at the University of Illinois sports complex this week that I have decided to postpone that subject another week. I had the distinct pleasure of speaking by telephone to Jonathon Mahler, who just published a new book on Paterno entitled Death Comes To Happy Valley. Mahler was very insightful in talking with me about his research for the book, as well as the turn of events leading to his firing, and ultimately, death. So, that entry will be coming up in a future Illini Guy Report. There is a lot to cover this week, so I'll get right to it.

Wednesday was National Letter of Intent Signing Day for high school athletes to make their college choices official by signing on the dotted line and then faxing those letters to the respective schools. New Illini football coach Tim Beckman signed a total of 19 players in a class that is not bursting with a lot of fanfare, but talented nonetheless. Highlighting the class are 6 players from the state of Ohio, 5 from Illinois, 5 from Florida, and 1 each from Michigan, Indiana, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Since Beckman was hired back on December 9th, he has had roughly a month to assemble a coaching staff, and get out on the road to get the recruits onto campus. 14 skill players, 4 lineman and a kicker is the way that the class was broken down. On Tuesday, Beckman introduced his coaching staff to the media, and at first glimpse, the coaches he is bringing in are much like him, energetic and ready to roll. Beckman stresses family a lot, and will incorporate that philosophy into his coaching style at Illinois. After the recruiting class was unveiled, Beckman held an event at the Assembly Hall for the public to meet the coaches and to show the new commitments on the video screen. All signs are pointing to athletic director Mike Thomas making a good hire in Beckman, but the real test will be when the team takes the field this fall. It is unfair to judge him on this year, however, as most of these players are Zook's and may not thrive in Beckman's system. Unlike when Zook was hired, Beckman inherits a team with a lot of talent on the roster, although the marquee player, Whitney Mercilus, left early for the NFL. Also, a favorable schedule at home will help with getting another winning record. But the ultimate goal, as the coaches pointed out, is to bring championships to Champaign, something that everyone in Illini Nation should be excited to hear.

After three straight losses, Bruce Weber has begun to feel his seat getting a bit hotter, as fans continue to call for his dismissal. On Tuesday night, 9th ranked Michigan State paid a visit to the Assembly Hall, a task that was daunting at best. Needless to say, the game set basketball back quite a few decades, and in the end, the Illini came out on top in a very ugly game, upsetting the Spartans 42-41 to record their second win of the season against a top 10 team. There hadn't been this low scoring of a game since that infamous Penn State debacle a few years back, 38-33. The 42 points scored by the Illini also were the lowest by an Illini team in a win in a very long time. Still, a win is a win, but it does come with some questions. The Illini are still having trouble putting the ball in the basket, and whoever thinks Meyers Leonard is ready for the NBA after this season might want to re-assess their thinking. Yes, Leonard has size, and that is what the pro scouts are looking for, but the fact remains that he still has issues in driving the lane towards the hoop. Michigan State's two big men. Draymond Green and Derrick Nix manhandled him for most of the game. With the victory, the Illini improve to 16-6 overall and 5-4 in the Big Ten, and will welcome the Northwestern Wildcats to the Assembly Hall on Super Bowl Sunday for a matinee affair (2:00 pm CT, BTN). After the Wildcats come to Champaign, then the schedule gets a whole lot tougher, with road contests at Indiana and Michigan the following week. In a season that has been anything but predictable in the Big Ten, it should be interesting to say the least.

Even though the Illini women's basketball team hadn't won a conference game heading into the start of last week, they have remained competitive, just not being able to win the close games down the stretch. That all changed, however, with a win at Michigan State last Thursday 71-62 in overtime. Trying to capitalize on the momentum of that win, they hosted Nebraska for "Pack The Hall" on Sunday afternoon. In front of 2200 people, which for the women is a pretty big crowd, they were defeated by the Cornhuskers 67-47. Nebraska came in ranked #19, so it was a pretty tall order for the Illini to come out on top. Finally, to cap a busy week for Jolette Law's team, the Illini hosted Minnesota on Thursday night, and was able to come out on top, defeating the Gophers 72-67. With the win over Minnesota, the Illini improve their season marks to 8-15 overall and 2-8 in the conference. Those records are still not very impressive, but taking a look at the schedule gives a better indication of why it is like it is. The Illini have the seventh toughest schedule in the nation, and Law is hoping that the level of competition that they are playing will benefit them when the Big Ten Tournament begins at the end of this month. That is the only realistic shot that they have of doing anything in the postseason.