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.

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.

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