I guess, since it still is technically football season, that I should lead off this week's blog entry with Illini football, even though I don't really want to. Although the Illini season will be done after this Saturday's game, this has been one that many in Illini Nation will want to soon forget. Perhaps the most winnable game remaining on the schedule almost resulted in a win, but it was still a loss and as a result, dropped the Illini to 2-9 overall and 0-7 in the Big Ten. It is no secret that Tim Beckman has struggled in his first season as the Illinois coach, and there very well could be some coaching changes in the off-season. The Illini were defeated last Saturday on Senior Day by a 20-17 score to the Purdue Boilermakers, who are still in the hunt for a bowl berth. This was a game that the Illini could have won, but the same miscues that have plagued them all season came to roost against the Boilers, and the chance to break the long conference losing streak came and went. There is not much hope for ending this streak in the final game of the season, when the Illini head north to Evanston to battle the Northwestern Wildcats this coming Saturday (11:00 am CT, BTN). The Wildcats, or "that team up north", as quoted by Beckman, are 8-3 overall and are still very much in contention for a New Year's Day bowl game.
So far, so good on the John Groce era at Illinois, as they have gotten off to a fast and successful start. After beginning the season with two wins at home, the Illini made the long trip to Hawaii for four games, starting off in Honolulu with a come from behind win over the Rainbow Warriors of Hawaii 78-77 in overtime. The Illini were down by as much as 16 points in the game before making a remarkable comeback and getting the win on a last second jumper by D. J. Richardson at the buzzer. Just the fact that the Illini held their composure was a sign of good things to come. After the game against Hawaii, the Illini did some island hopping onto the island of Maui to compete in the EA Sports Maui Invitational, where they faced some tough competition. The first test was the Trojans of USC, which proved to be no match at all, as the Illini prevailed 94-64, once again shooting lights out from beyond the arc. That earned the Illini a berth in the semifinals against host Chaminade, a Division II school that knocked off Texas in their first game. It was more of the same for the Illini against the Silverswords, as they won 84-61 to advance to the championship game of the tournament against Butler, who upset #9 ranked North Carolina in the semifinals. There is something about this new energy for the Fighting Illini, and it showed once again as the Illini defeated Butler 78-61 to capture the Maui Invitational title. Brandon Paul once again led the Illini in scoring with 20 points, while Tracy Abrams added 17. Tyler Griffey and D. J. Richardson each netted 14 points to propel Illinois to a 6-0 start, and momentum heading into the Thanksgiving holiday. In the three games in Maui, the Illini never trailed, but more importantly, have hit the double digit mark in three pointers made in each game this season. They lead the nation in that category. The Illini will return home for a couple of games this coming week, first taking on Gardner-Webb on Sunday afternoon (3:00 pm CT, BTN), followed by the Big Ten/ACC Challenge against Georgia Tech next Wednesday (8:00 pm CT, ESPN2). Coaching can make a difference, and that point is very evident so far this season.
After losing for the first time this season, Matt Bollant's Illini women's basketball team returned to their winning ways by defeating Cleveland State 83-64 last Sunday at the Assembly Hall behind Ivory Crawford, who scored 32 points to help lead her team to victory. Karisma Penn added 17, while Amber Moore scored 12 to push the Illini's record to 2-1 overall. The Illini will head to their own tropical paradise to play in the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas at Grand Bahama Island. The Illini will face Tulsa on Friday afternoon (3:45 pm CT, no TV), then will take on either Iowa State or Loyola Marymount on Saturday.
A very successful season for the Illini women's soccer team came to an end last Friday evening when they were defeated 9-2 by coach Janet Rayfield's alma mater, North Carolina, in Chapel Hill. The Illini can hold their head high for even getting this far, having made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament to put them in position to get the NCAA berth, then getting a win in that tournament as well to force the matchup with the Tar Heels. The Illini finish the season at 10-9-4 overall, and have great visions of either matching or exceeding their success next season.
Needing to run the table in order to put themselves in position for an NCAA Tournament berth, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team fell short of that goal by losing at Michigan State last Friday night. The Illlini came back and defeated Michigan on Saturday evening, then dispatched Northwestern in 5 games on the night before Thanksgiving up in Evanston. The Illini will close out the season on Saturday night when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes. Yes, it has been a disappointing season for the Illini, but with the tough schedule that they played, plus losing some top flight players from last season's national runner-up team, it was bound to happen. The Illini are currently 13-16 overall and 7-12 in conference play. They will return to prominence in the not too distant future.