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, 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.

No comments: