I normally begin each weekly blog with the report on the Illinois football team. Well, everyone knows what is going on within that program right now, so I will begin this week's entry with men's and women's basketball. No offense to Tim Beckman, but those programs show much more promise than the football team does. John Groce's Illini basketball team has finished up exhibition play, and even though the final score would indicate a close game, it really wasn't as close as what the score would show you. The Illini defeated West Chester, a Division II school from Pennsylvania, 75-66 on Sunday afternoon at the Assembly Hall in Champaign. The Illini held a lead as large as 27 points during the game, but didn't have a very good stretch in the second half, thus letting West Chester back in the game. At one point, Groce replaced his lineup with 5 brand new players, but quickly retracted them once the lead fell below 10 points. The Illini have a lot of work to do, and not a lot of time to get a lot accomplished, as they begin the season on Friday night when they host Colgate at the Assembly Hall (7:00 pm, CT, No TV). This game will mark the official beginning of the Groce era, and the Orange Krush will be ushering it in style as they welcome Groce by bringing out "Orange Hush", a nod to Groce's alma mater, Taylor University. The Krush will remain silent from the beginning of the game until the Illini score their 10th point of the game. At that point, they will cheer wildly, and they are asking the fans going to the game to participate in the event as well. Let's just hope that the game doesn't resemble the Penn State game a couple years ago, when the Illini barely hit the 10 point mark before halftime. If that happens, prepare for a very quiet Assembly Hall on Friday night.
Things have started off very well for Matt Bollant and the women's basketball team, and if Tuesday night's final exhibition tuneup is any indication, then the season should be a very exciting one. The Illini totally obliterated Concordia University 120-29 at the Assembly Hall, as seven players scored in double figures and the Illini's defense forced 53 turnovers in the game. The leading scorer for the Illini was Taylor Tuck with 20 points, while Amber Moore added 16. The Illini took a 65-13 lead at the half, and really never had any issue from that point on with their guests. The season tips off for real this Sunday when the Illini host Evansville (2:00 pm, CT, no TV).
Now, for some football. I made my first trip to the 'Shoe last Saturday to cover the game, and came away impressed at the facility, but not the action on the field. The Illini once again went down to defeat 52-22 to the Ohio State Buckeyes, and were never really in the game except for the first quarter. The Illini scored first on a field goal by Nick Immekus, who returned from an injury that has sidelined him for the past several weeks. The Buckeyes answered with a touchdown, and then the Illini traded another field goal for yet another touchdown. So, you can see the score discrepancy as the Illini kept getting field goals while the Buckeyes were scoring the touchdowns. One bright spot of the game was the return of Corey Lewis, who had been sidelined for the past couple of years with various injuries. Lewis was emotional upon his return, as was expected, and Beckman has petitioned for a sixth year of eligibility for a medical redshirt. The Illini return for the first of two final home games on Saturday when they host the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2:30 pm, CT, BTN). On paper, the Illini have a shot to beat the Gophers, but coach Jerry Kill has Minnesota playing their best football of the season. Therefore, a win will be difficult, but definitely not out of the question. The Illini are a dismal 2-7 overall and still winless in the Big Ten at 0-5, and with the loss to the Buckeyes on Saturday, are officially eliminated from any bowl appearance. Not that they were going to anyway.
The Fighting Illini women's soccer team wrapped up play in the Big Ten Tournament last Sunday, and made the championship game coming from the #5 seed. The Illini upset top seed Penn State to get to the title game, but was defeated by Ohio State 2-1. However, the Illini's tournament success earned them a berth in the NCAA Tournament, where they will be facing Missouri on Saturday evening (6:30 pm, CT) in Columbia. The Illini enter NCAA Tourney play at 10-8-3 overall.
The road for Kevin Hambly's Illini women's volleyball team has been anything but easy this season, and time is drawing very thin for them to try and repeat to get to the Final Four as they begin their toughest road trip this weekend when they travel to #2 Penn State on Thursday evening (7:00 pm CT, BTN) and #15 Ohio State on Saturday night (6:00 pm CT, no TV). The Illini have struggled mightily since their appearance in the title game last season, and can ill afford any more losses. The Illini defeated Indiana last Friday evening at Huff Hall to improve to 10-13 overall, but still remain 5-9 in the conference. Nobody said it would be easy for the Illini this year, but I do not think they envisioned anything close to what they are experiencing. In order for the Illini to have any reasonable shot at a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, they pretty much need to win out, including these two this weekend.