The football season is finally over for the Fighting Illini, and it couldn't have had a more fitting end than it did, which was a 50-14 drubbing at the hands of the Northwestern Wildcats at Ryan Field in Evanston. Illinois fans have not had much to cheer about this season, and since last season's win at Indiana, the Illini have proceeded to drop 14 straight conference games. If you are scoring at home, yes, that means that the Illini were 0-8 this season in Big Ten play after losing the final 6 games of the 2011 season. Not a good track record by any stretch of the imagination, and more questions than answers have surfaced as to the future of the program, not to mention the leader of that program. For all intensive purposes, the Illini offense was a disaster this season, and the defense wasn't much better, as they were outscored 385-200 on the season. Talk recently came up about the future of head coach Tim Beckman, but those rumors were quickly put to rest on Tuesday afternoon by athletic director Mike Thomas, who said that Beckman will be the coach in 2013. I don't know about you, but if I were Beckman, I would be worried, because the schedule doesn't get any easier to give the Illini a break next season.
The John Groce era has begun with a bang, and so far, through 8 games, the Illini are 8-0 and ranked for the first time in nearly a year, entering both the USA Today Coaches' poll and the AP poll at #22. So far since Groce has been here he has transformed the Illini into a team that plays hard every possession. Yes, there have been a couple of close calls, especially last Sunday when they squeaked by the Runnin' Bulldogs of Gardner-Webb 63-62. Illinois went through the entire Maui Invitational without trailing, and seemed to have a little Hawaiian Hangover returning to Champaign. Whatever funk the Illini were in needed to be gone before they took on the Yellowjackets of Georgia Tech on Wednesday night in the Big 10/ACC Challenge. The current group of seniors have never lost in the challenge, and that streak continued with a 75-62 win, giving the Illini their fourth straight win in the annual competition with the ACC. It was a tight game the entire night, and until Joseph Bertrand went on a 10-0 run by himself to give the Illini a lead that it would never relinquish, the outlook was bleak. Brandon Paul, who didn't have his best game, still managed 15 points, but one major item of concern is the free throw shooting. The Illini were just 7-18 from the line, and that stat will have to improve from here on out, especially when the schedule gets a little tougher before the Big Ten season begins in earnest. The Illini will have a few days off to recuperate before next taking the court next Tuesday against the Catamounts of Western Carolina (7:00 pm CT, no TV). The start to this season is the best for a first year Illini coach in nearly 100 years. Hopefully, he can continue this early success to make Illini Nation forget Fighting Illini football.
After stubbing their toe in The Bahamas in the championship game of the Junkanoo Jam, the Fighting Illini women's basketball team returned to the Assembly Hall to host the Wake Forest Demon Deacons in their own version of the Big 10/ACC Challenge. The Illini emerged victorious, winning 95-82 behind a double-double by Karisma Penn, who scored 30 points and grabbed 10 rebounds. Ivory Crawford added 26 points, while Amber Moore chipped in 11 points to help improve the Illini's record to 4-2 on the season. In The Bahamas, the Illini got by Iowa State 68-50 last Friday before losing to Tulsa less than 24 hours later 82-75. Still, it was a trip that Coach Matt Bollant said was a learning experience. After all, Bollant is still in the beginning phases of his tenure at Illinois, and the players, as a result, are learning his system as well. The Illini don't have a lot of time in between games, as they are back in action on Saturday afternoon when they host Colorado (1:00 pm CT, BTN.com).