Last week, the Big Ten announced that two more schools, Maryland and Rutgers, would be joining the conference in the summer of 2014. With the added expansion east, that brings the total number of schools to 14 if you're scoring at home (and I know you are, admit it). This brings a number of questions to the forefront, mainly where is the endpoint for expansion? It is evident that these schools are being brought in for one reason, and that is exposure to television markets in the New York and Washington D.C. areas, and the underlying factor in all of that is obviously money. Commissioner Jim Delany has done a remarkable job in getting the Big Ten the needed attention in markets dominated by the Big East and ACC conferences, but what does it do for the sports that those teams play? Rutgers has been successful on the football field, but you really don't think of them as a powerhouse in basketball. The opposite applies to Maryland, who has been relevant in basketball, but sporadic in football. This will ultimately create very long conference road trips, with the league stretching from College Park, Maryland to Lincoln, Nebraska. What will end up happening as these schools and conferences play the proverbial game of 52 card pickup is there will be 4 major conferences, with 16 teams per conference. Have at it, NCAA! It's your mess, now fix it!
The John Groce era at Illinois is off to a great start, and Groce now owns the best beginning to an Illinois coaching career since Fletcher Lane, over 100 years ago. For his early heroics, the Illini have returned to the national rankings, and find themselves #13 in the AP poll and #14 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll in this week's poll. Many pundits say that this is too high a ranking for the Illini, and they may be right. I am not sure what they are basing this on, but after all, they are 9-0 and have a Maui Invitational championship to their credit. However, they have struggled with teams that they should beat handily, and Tuesday night's contest against Western Carolina is a prime example of this. The Illini won the game 72-64, but it was far from the game that it should have been. This Illini team does have a bit more resolve than the one coached by Bruce Weber last season, and there are already marked differences in Groce's coaching style with these guys. The Illini will get a stern test on Saturday evening when they travel to Spokane, Washington to take on the Bulldogs (or do you say Zags?) of Gonzaga (9:00 pm CT, ESPN2). Gonzaga is also 9-0 on the season, and ranked #10 in the country, and the Illini are finishing up a four game series with the Bulldogs dating back to 2009. The Illini have won the last two games in the series, last season in Champaign (82-75) and in 2010 in Seattle (73-61), but this Gonzaga team is big and veteran, and nobody expects the Illini to go into the Zags' arena and come out with a victory. However, if they do, then maybe that ranking doesn't look so bad after all. One funny bit from the game the other night regarding Groce. In his postgame press conference, he remarked that he was glad that he wore dark underwear, because one time when he crouched, he split his pants, and remained that way for the rest of the game. Side-spliting, or in this case, seam-splitting, indeed.
New Illini women's coach Matt Bollant knew that transforming this team into an instant winner would be a challenge, and so far, he has been right. The Illini have been fun to watch and competitive in their games, but only have a 4-4 record to show for it thus far. The Illini dropped a 75-56 contest to Texas Tech in Lubbock on Wednesday night, behind 21 points by Amber Moore and 18 for Karisma Penn. The Lady Red Raiders came into the game at 6-1 overall, so winning on the road was a tough task to begin with. The Illini will conclude their brief 2 game road trip on Sunday when they travel to Memphis, Tennessee to take on Memphis (2:00 pm CT, No TV).