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.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy Holidays

     The holidays are a time for reflecting on things, and what a good excuse to reflect on the state of the various Illinois sports teams.  With mens' and womens' basketball in full force right now, we'll start there.

     John Groce has his squad at 9-2 on the season, but they could very easily be 10-1 with the tough loss in Atlanta to Georgia Tech.  The Illini dropped another close game last Saturday evening in Portland, Oregon to the Oregon Ducks, and with final exams wrapping up on the campus, have been idle since that game.  The Illini head down to St. Louis on Saturday at the Scottrade Center for the annual Braggin' Rights game against the Tigers of Missouri (4:30 pm CT, ESPN2).  The Tigers are 10-0 on the season, and like the Illini, have a lot of new players on the roster.  This is one of the more intriguing matchups all season, due to the nature of the game.  It is literally 50/50 split between Illinois and Missouri fans, and the fact that they meet in the Gateway City makes it even better.  Plus, the atmosphere is incredible as well.  If you haven't been before, I strongly suggest you try and attend one of these, because you will not be disappointed.

     Matt Bollant also has his team playing through the holidays, although not quite as successful as their counterparts on the mens' side.  The Illini are currently 6-5 on the season, and recently snapped a 3 game losing streak with a come from behind 71-70 win over Seton Hall.  The Illini haven't played in 12 days, so the time off has been a good thing for both Bollant and the players.  The Illini return to action on Saturday afternoon when they welcome Tennessee-Martin to the State Farm Center (2:00 pm CT, No TV).

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team saw their season come to an end last weekend in the Regional Semifinals at the State Farm Center in Champaign, as they were defeated by Big Ten rival Purdue 3-0.  The Illini finish the season 18-15 overall, and even though they didn't reach their goal of making the Final Four, the latter part of the season was one where they played much better and put themselves in position to play at home in not only the first and second rounds, but the Regional as well.  That was worth all they went through in itself.

     Even though the football season is over for the Fighting Illini, the team is still making news, and in a good way.  Junior College and early enrollment signing day was this past Wednesday, and head coach Tim Beckman is addressing some needs with some players with quite a bit of experience.  Among them are a couple of twins, Tyrin and Tyree Stone-Davis, who will give depth at a couple of positions.  Mike Dudek, a wide receiver from Neuqua Valley HS in Naperville, will hope to fill the void left by Steve Hull and Ryan Lankford, both whom won't be back next year.  All told, 9 players will join the Illini family in January.  A couple other players have verbally committed to the Illini, and could possibly sign in February when national letter of intent (NLI) day arrives.  Also, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was signed to an extension through 2015, meaning he will lead that unit when Wes Lunt assumes the quarterbacking duties with the departure of Nathan Scheelhasse.

That's a wrap on 2013.  Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Learning Curve

     Mercifully, the football season ended for the Fighting Illini last Saturday, as they were defeated 37-34 by the Northwestern Wildcats at a very empty Memorial Stadium in  Champaign.  The Illini, under second year coach Tim Beckman, finished the season at 4-8 overall, but just 1-7 in Big Ten play.  Granted, the season wasn't viewed as a success by many standards, but the offense did improve markedly under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.  As a result, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase flourished in his final season, leading a unit that put up a good amount of points.  The defense, on the other hand, was another story entirely.   One of the worst units in the country in terms of allowed offensive yards, coordinator Tim Banks just couldn't get things turned around on his side of the ball.  The news came out earlier in the week that Beckman will return for his third season next year, and further information was relayed that hints there won't be any changes to the coaching staff in the off-season.  On the surface, this may anger many Illini fans that Banks is possibly being retained, but athletic director Mike Thomas is giving Beckman another year to make further progress, and he may very well believe that Banks is the right man for the job.  If things don't work out for some reason after next season, they all very well could be shown the door after the 2014 season, especially if the Illini don't return to a bowl game.

     Basketball is in full swing on both the men's and women's side, and thus far, the seasons are going on schedule given the circumstances of each team.  John Groce's men's team is off to a 7-1 start, having dropped their first contest of the season on Tuesday night 67-64 to Georgia Tech in the Big 10/ACC Challenge in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Illini led late in the game 60-48, when they went into hibernation mode, and ultimately, let the game slip through their fingers.  Afterward, Groce called his team's execution "pathetic", which leads to the fact that he wasn't none too happy about the outcome.  This is a young team, and a lot of the players haven't had the luxury of playing together as a group, so a letdown like this was bound to occur before too long.  The Illini don't have much time to dwell on this loss, as it's right back to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon to take on Auburn at Philips Arena (2:00 pm CT, FSN).

     Coach Matt Bollant's women's squad have struggled out of the gate this season, losing 2 out of 3 games in Cancun over Thanksgiving weekend, and then losing 93-69 to Georgia Tech on Wednesday night at the same arena that the men lost the night before.  In the loss to the Yellow Jackets, Jacqui Grant recorded another double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in defeat.  The Illini are currently 5-4 on the season, and jump right back into action this weekend, when they travel to Colorado to battle the Buffaloes on Saturday evening (6:00 pm CT).

     When the Illinois volleyball schedule was released at the beginning of the season, it appeared to be one of the most difficult in the entire country, and given the Illini's final regular season record (16-14 overall, 12-8 Big 10), it paid off in the end.  As a result, the Illini did enough to not only make the NCAA Tournament, but was also chosen to host the first and second rounds of the tourney, and according to coach Kevin Hambly, it is an honor that is well deserved.  The Illini will take on Morehead State on Friday evening at around 7:00 pm, following the first game between Louisville and Marquette.  All of these matches will take place at Huff Hall, and the winners will play again on Saturday evening for a chance to move down the street to State Farm Center next weekend for the NCAA Regional.  So, for those of you that are keeping score, the Fighting Illini have a chance to play all the way up to the Final Four on their own campus, which could be very rewarding.  Just as the basketball team had a similar route close to home back in 2005 when they played in Indianapolis, Chicago, and ultimately, St. Louis for the Final Four, that could be beneficial in the long run.  Unlike the basketball run, though, the volleyball Final Four is in Seattle, so I guess it's not as perfect of a comparison.

     After a strong postseason run, the Illini soccer team finally saw their season come to an end, as they were defeated by Boston College 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament at Lincoln, Nebraska.  The Illini finish the season 11-9-3 overall, and can attribute a lot of that success to redshirt junior Jannelle Flaws and senior Vanessa DiBernardo.

     High school basketball returns to the State Farm Center this coming weekend, when Centennial High School hosts the Country Financial Centennial Shootout on Saturday.  Six games are on tap, including Illini signee Michael Finke, who will play the final game of the evening against Chicago Bogan.  A full list of the teams can be found at the following website:  www.centennialshootout,com


Thursday, November 21, 2013

Looking On The Bright Side

     If you are an Illinois sports fan, this past weekend had several ups and downs for you to choose from.  From the Cliff Alexander debacle to Illinois football, Illini volleyball making a resurgence to women's soccer staying alive in the NCAA tournament, there was a little bit of everything.  I would be remiss if I omitted the Illini women's basketball team, which almost set a school record for points in a game, but came up just short.  A lot to cover, so I'll get right to it.

     Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you have undoubtedly heard about the recruiting battle for one of the best high school players to come out of Illinois, Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie High School.  Alexander had limited his final four choices to Illinois, Kansas, Memphis and DePaul, and decision day was last Friday, when he announced on national television (ESPNU).  Well, to make a long story short, he chose Kansas, but it was the way that he did it that angered Illini Nation.  Alexander went for the Illinois hat, picked it up, and then grabbed the Kansas hat, which signaled his choice.  A long battle is over, and for what it's worth, all the better because of it.  To add insult to injury, John Groce found out that one of the players that had already made a verbal commitment to the Illini backed out of that promise, and decided to stay home and play for Louisville, his hometown.  This player, Quentin Snider, originally had planned to go to Louisville, but when coach Rick Pitino was courting a player by the name of JaQuan Lyle, Snider backed off and Groce game in.  Well, Lyle eventually didn't go to Louisville, and that opened up a chance for Snider to keep his original choice, which was to the Cardinals.  Yes, it wasn't a good day on the recruiting front, and John Groce came out firing on all cylinders after the football game, citing an article written by Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times.  The article itself wasn't the issue, but the headline that was captioned about it.  It made it sound as if Greenberg was bashing the Illini, but after all, he is paid to write what he wants, and he did just that.  Still, it got Groce going, and he is coming out even more focused on the recruiting futures.  What seems to be lost in all of this is the fact that Groce did sign 2 players for the 2014 class, Michael Finke from Champaign, and LeRon Black from Memphis, Tennessee.  Despite not getting Alexander and Snider, the Illini will be fine, and should be even better next season when some of these players that are currently sitting out from transferring in can suit up and get on the court.

     Speaking of the basketball team, they ran their record on the 2013-14 season to 4-0 last Sunday afternoon by defeating in-state rival Bradley 81-55 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  Senior transfer Jon Ekey had his best game as an Illini thus far, scoring 19 points, including 5-7 from beyond the arc.  Rayvonte Rice scored 13 points, while Tracy Abrams added 12 for the Illini, who played their best game of the young season against the Braves.  The Illini will get back into action on Friday night when they welcome the Chicago State Cougars to the State Farm Center (8:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini will see their first road action next Tuesday night when they travel to Las Vegas to take on the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV (9:45 pm CT, CBS Sports Network).

     The Fighting Illini women's basketball team has been busy this past week, and are beginning to see the success on the court as a result.  Two wins last week, including a 112-28 dismantling of Alcorn State has propelled Matt Bollant's squad to a 3-1 start.  In the lopsided win over Alcorn State, the Illini set a record for margin of victory at home, and just missed setting a record of total points scored, which was 113.  Still, the Illini dominated the game in every facet, and placed seven players in double figures, led by Amber Moore, who had 25 points.  Sarah Hartwell added 16 points to pace the Illini, and every player on the roster played at least 12 minutes in the game.  The way the score looked, it appeared that the Illini ran up the score, but that wasn't the case.  Bollant was pleased with the result, and the sad part is that the Illini could have had more than they ended up.  The Illini return to the court on Thursday evening when they welcome the Salukis of Southern Illinois to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     A few weeks ago, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team was in serious jeopardy of making the NCAA tournament, an event that they will be hosting in one of the upcoming regionals.  If there is one point in the season that can be viewed as the turnaround, you would look at the Michigan match, which found the Illini trailing 2-0 before making a miraculous comeback to defeat the Wolverines.  Last weekend, the Illini won both their matches at home, sweeping both Indiana and #17 Purdue to improve their record to 14-12 overall and 10-6 in the conference.  In order to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the Illini need to finish the regular season with a .500 record.  This weekend will be their last road trip of the season, as they travel to Ohio State on Friday night (6:00 pm CT), then face the #2 team in the nation, Penn State, on Saturday night.  (6:30 pm CT).  Whereas the postseason looked bleak a few weeks ago, it now has cleared up immensely, but there is still much work to be done.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team began NCAA tournament play last weekend at Washington State, and came away with a victory due to penalty kicks 0-0 in 2 OT.  Freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley notched 11 saves during regulation and two more in the overtime period, and Vanessa DiBernardo kicked the game winner for the Illini, who advance to the next round of the tournament and will face #7 Portland on Friday afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska (11:00 am CT).  The Pilots are 17-2-1 overall, and defeated Seattle 2-0 in their opening round match last weekend.  The Illini are 10-8-3 overall, and will need another good effort by their team in order to continue playing on.

     Now, on to football.  It was pretty much evident that the Illini would not get past the #3 Ohio State Buckeyes last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, but they held tough with the Buckeyes, ending up losing 60-35.  What is even worse about this is the show of fans in the stands.  Take one look at the student section in the north end zone, and it is apparent that there is not much excitement for this program.  The Block-I didn't even have enough students to complete simple card stunts during halftime, and the stands took on a scarlet and grey look, as many, many fans made the trip from Columbus and points elsewhere.  At times, it even appeared that there were more Ohio State fans than Illinois fans in the stands, especially toward the end of the game.  This is what we have come to expect from a program that has now lost 20 straight Big Ten games, and the last two games of the season could go a long way to determine if Tim Beckman stays around for next season.  The Illini travel to West Lafayette on Saturday morning to face the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, BTN), a game that the Illini are actually favored to win.  The Illini come into the game with Purdue at 3-7 overall and winless in conference play at 0-6, and a bowl trip has officially been eliminated.  The Boilermakers are even worse than Illinois, if you can believe it, at 1-9 overall and 0-6 as well in Big Ten play.  There has been little to be excited about for the Illini football team this season, and last Saturday's game may have exposed some additional issues, as Beckman was seen verbally arguing with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit following a safety by the Buckeyes.  It has been a comedy of errors during this losing streak, and even though the Illini have won 3 games this season, one more than last season, progress is hard to see.  Yes, the offense is much better, but the defense is as porous as ever.  This is why a victory over Purdue is a must, and Beckman's job may very well depend on it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Oh, the possibilities!

     Normally, I start out each week's blog entry with the football recap.  Since football is not going so well this season, I will deviate from the norm and begin this week with Fighting Illini basketball.

     John Groce has his young Illini team off to a 3-0 start, but it certainly hasn't been easy.  Not that anyone thought that it would be, either.  Groce, who welcomed nine new players to his roster this season, knew that there would some adversity to go through with such a young team, and at times, it has been more than evident  already in the 2013-14 season.  The latest outcome was a 64-52 win over the Valparaiso Crusaders on Wednesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign, a game in which the Illini led by double digits, only to see the Crusaders storm back and make it a game late.  Rayvonte Rice once again led the way for the Illini, scoring a game high 18 points, while senior transfer Jon Ekey was chairman of the boards, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 6 points.  Valparaiso, who had a familiar face on the bench, was a big team, and gave the Illini a small taste of what it will be like when they face a team that is taller than they are.  The familiar face on the Valpo bench was none other than Roger Powell Jr., who was a major part of the 2004-05 national runner-up team that lost to North Carolina in the Final Four.  Powell, who was all business for the Crusaders, received a nice ovation when he was announced to the crowd.  The Rev, as he is better known as, was always one of my favorite players from that team, and was often overshadowed by Dee Brown and Deron Williams, the major stars of the team.  However, the run to the Final Four that year would have not been possible without the services of Powell, so it was good to see that he still is revered by Illini Nation.

     The Fighting Illini continue action this weekend, when they welcome the Bradley Braves to the State Farm Center on Sunday afternoon (5:00 pm CT, no TV).  Bradley, who is coached by Geno Ford, is the brother of current Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford, so that should be rather interesting from the sidelines on Sunday.  The Braves are also 3-0 on the season, and will host Chicago State on Friday night before making the trek down I-74 to the State Farm Center.  Bradley, who plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, will see a familiar face on the Illini roster in Ekey, who played at Illinois State for the past four years.  The Braves also have a former Illini player on their roster in Mike Shaw, although Shaw is sitting out this season due to transfer rules.

     The Cliff watch is still on, and the decision will be made tomorrow by one of the most heralded recruits in the class of 2014.  Alexander, who will make his decision on Friday at about 3:15 pm on ESPNU, is culminating a recruiting courtship that seems to have lasted for months.  The decision has Illini Nation on high alert, and it seems that this is all that people have talked about for the past couple of weeks.  To further complicate matters, originally Cliff was supposed to be the only one to announce his college choice on the airwaves Friday.  However, two other highly sought after recruits, Jhalil Okafor and Tyus Jones, are also making their decisions at around the same time.  Okafor and Jones have long been rumored to be a package deal for one lucky school, and the leading contenders for their services are Kansas and Duke.  As far as Alexander goes, he has narrowed his final choices to Kansas, Illinois, DePaul and Memphis.  I, for one, will be happy when all of this is over, but it has been a fun ride.

     Now for the football team.  It will be two teams going in opposite directions on Saturday morning when the Fighting Illini welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to Memorial Stadium in Champaign (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  The Illini are in the midst of a 19 game conference losing streak that dates back to the 2011 season, while the Buckeyes are riding the wave of a 21 game win streak under Urban Meyer.  Ohio State, who was ineligible for postseason play last season, went undefeated, and are 9-0 this season, which is good enough for a #3 national ranking.  Stranger things have happened, but this would be an absolute aberration if the Illini were to somehow break the losing streak against the Buckeyes.  That being said, the losing streak will reach 20 games, which is a number that nobody wants to see.  The Illini lost a shootout to Indiana last Saturday 52-35 in Bloomington, as the Illini defense once again was very porous.  It didn't help that the Indiana offense is high-powered, and at times, showed their force.  Nobody is giving the Illini a chance in this one, and for good reason, given the way the season has gone.  Even Vegas is along for the ride, as they have pegged the Buckeyes as 33 point favorites.

     Matt Bollant's second women's basketball squad has quite a few new faces as well, and after a loss at Bradley to open the season, the Illini have won two straight at the State Farm Center to push their overall record to 2-1.  The Illini defeated Valparaiso 87-59 on Tuesday night, then hit the 90 point mark once again on Thursday evening to defeat Mississippi Valley State 93-70.  It is already apparent that Bollant's team will have no problem scoring points, as evidenced by the high point totals.  In the win over Mississippi Valley State, Amber Moore had a monster game, scoring 27 points and notching a double-double with 19 rebounds.  Freshman Jacqui Grant also had a good night, scoring 22 points and snaring 7 boards.  The Illini will be in action on Sunday afternoon before the men's game, when they welcome Alcorn State to the 'Farm.  Game time is at 1:00 pm.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team received a surprise on Monday, when they were selected to play in the NCAA Tournament.  Coach Janet Rayfield wasn't sure that they would be in the field, but when some teams that they needed to win did, it opened up a spot for them.  The Illini, who finished the regular season 10-8-2 overall, will travel to Pullman, Washington to battle the Washington State Cougars on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 pm CT.  Washington State comes into the contest at 14-3-3 overall, and is ranked nationally at #21 heading into the postseason.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to make the push toward the postseason, and will conclude a four match home stand this weekend when they welcome Purdue and Indiana to Huff Hall.  The Illini defeated #17 Michigan and #13 Michigan State last weekend to push their overall record back to the .500 mark at 12-12, while improving their conference record to 8-6.  The Illini will entertain Indiana on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), and then welcome the #18 ranked Boilermakers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT).  In order for the Illini to qualify for the postseason and get a chance to play on the State Farm Center floor in the NCAA Regional, they must finish the regular season at .500 or better.  The wins last weekend will go a long way toward that goal, but they still have a lot of work to do.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Still Searching

     That one was close.  Really close.

     But, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and what it amounts to is the Fighting Illni football team's conference losing streak was extended to 18 games.  The Illini probably played their most complete game in quite some time, but came out on the short end in a 24-17 overtime defeat to the Penn State Nittany Lions last Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania.  The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and the vibe was one of 'here we go again'.  But, unlike Illini games of recent memory, this team didn't quit, and actually took a late lead.  But, it seems like bad luck likes to follow this team, and the game eventually went into overtime and, well, you know the rest of the story.  An emotional Tim Beckman was quoted after the game, saying "we're going to get that Big Ten win, and we're going to get it this year".  This hasn't been easy for Beckman since arriving at Illinois, and all of the coaching changes have not helped matters either.  Bringing in Bill Cubit to lead the offense has been a breath of fresh air, and has given the offense some life, but the defense is still suspect, and coordinator Tim Banks may very well bear the brunt of it when the season ends.

     Now begins the final stretch run of the 2013 season, and the chance to salvage the season, and possibly even still become bowl eligible.  Crazy as that sounds, it is still a possibility if the Illini can muster 3 wins out of the final 4 games.  The quest begins on Saturday afternoon when the Illini travel to Bloomington, Indiana to face an Indiana Hoosiers (2:30 pm CT, BTN)  team that is one of the more prolific offenses in the conference, but also has one of the worst defenses in the league as well.  The Hoosiers have been scoring points at will this season, but they also have been allowing a lot of points from opposing offenses as well. The Illini come into the game with the Hoosiers at 3-5 overall and 0-4 in the conference, while Indiana enters the matchup with an identical 3-5 record, but 1-3 in Big Ten play.  Given those parameters, this could very well could turn out to be a high scoring affair, with the team that has the ball last coming out on top.  Could this be the game that the Illini break the long conference losing streak?  We'll just have to wait and see.

     John Groce and the Fighting Illini men's basketball team is set to open the 2013-14 season on Friday evening, when they welcome the Alabama State Hornets to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT,  The Illini, who won both of their exhibition games, are poised to begin the season with a roster that is markedly different than last year, namely the mere fact that there are nine new faces.  A couple of those newcomers, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, started the final exhibition tune up last Sunday, and did progressively well.  Tracy Abrams sat out that game with a strained hamstring, and Groce didn't want to take any chances.  The non-conference schedule isn't that strong early on,. which should give Groce a chance to see what his young team is all about.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini will face Jacksonville State (5:00 pm CT,, giving this weekend a feel of an NCAA Tournament weekend.

     Earlier this week, Groce secured his first commitment for the class of 2015 when D. J. Williams of Chicago Simeon made his college choice to play for Illinois.  Simeon players normally don't commit before their senior season, so this decision by Williams was a pleasant surprise.  The Cliff Alexander announcement will take place next week, and apparently it is between Illinois and Kansas to land the big man from Chicago Curie.  Groce certainly has made a splash in the recruiting circles, and the addition of Alexander would be an added bonus.

     Coach Matt Bollant and the women's basketball team also begins their season on Friday, although they start the season on the road at Bradley (11:00 am CT, No TV).  The Illini defeated Cardinal Strich 78-49 in their lone exhibition game of the pre-season, as Taylor Tuck led a balanced scoring attack with 14 points.  Like the men's squad, the women have a lot of new players this season, so youth will be a factor for Bollant's team as well.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team has their backs against the wall, and so far, are making the best of it.  The Illini won a huge match on the road last weekend at Iowa 3-0, and then on Wednesday evening, came home too Huff Hall to defeat #17 Michigan in a thrilling, come from behind win,  The Illini will welcome #13 Michigan State to Champaign on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV), and bring a 11-12 overall record and 7-8 conference mark into the contest.

     The Illini women's soccer team did what it could to qualify for the Big Ten Soccer Tournament, and since Champaign is hosting the tourney this year, that made it even sweeter.  Due to inclement weather this week, the tournament was moved from the soccer complex to the Campus Recreation turf fields to reduce wear and tear on the main field.  The Illini came into the tourney as the #5 seed, and took on #4 Indiana in their quarterfinal matchup.  The Illini came up short, losing to the Hoosiers 5-3 and therefore, bowing out of the tournament.  The Illini, who are 10-8-2 overall, will have to wait until Monday to find out if they will be playing on in the NCAA Tournament.  Coach Janet Rayfield thinks they have a good chance of making that happen.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

     This seems to be a recurring theme lately.  The Fighting Illini football team, for whatever reason, is beginning to resemble the way they looked last season.  After a somewhat surprising 3-1 start to the season, the Illini hit the Big Ten portion of the schedule, and unfortunately, back to reality.  The Illini have remained somewhat competitive up until the last game, a 42-3 drubbing at the hands of Michigan State.  Jumping out to a quick 3-0 lead, things were looking up as the game neared halftime.  But, as is often the case, a pivotal play in the game swung the momentum completely the other way, and what could have been an Illini touchdown was instead a Spartan goal line stand that ultimately resulted in a 99 yard drive by Michigan State to put the game officially out of reach.  To add injury to insult, the Illini lost their top receiver as well, Ryan Lankford, to a season ending shoulder setback.  The Illini could only muster 128 yards of total offense, 103 of those coming courtesy of Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed 13 of 21 passes in the game with an interception.  The Bill Cubit fueled offense has apparently ran out of gas, and a lot of questions need to be answered as the season progresses forward.  Tailback Josh Ferguson led the Illini in rushing yards with 26, and the disappearance of Donovonn Young was just as puzzling as the Illini's performance on the field.  In the absence of Lankford, the Illini will need to rely on Steve Hull, Devin Church and Justin Hardee to pick up the slack for the remainder of the season.  The Illini fell to 3-4 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, and extended their conference losing streak to 17 games.

     So, where does it end?  The Illini continue their quest for the elusive first Big Ten win for Coach Tim Beckman on Saturday morning when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  This will be the first trip back to Happy Valley since the whole Paterno/Sandusky scandal broke out, and ironically, it was just after the Illinois-Penn State game back in 2011 when everything was revealed.  Penn State comes into the game with the Illini at 4-3 overall and 1-2 in the Big Ten, and are coming off one of their worst losses in the history of the program, a 63-14 loss at Ohio State.  The Nittany Lions start a freshman quarterback in Christian Hackenberg, and feature a talented tailback in junior Bill Belton.  It's hard to gauge whether or not progress has been made since last season, but the mere fact that the Illini have won 1 more game than they did all of last year stands for something, doesn't it?

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team began exhibition play last week and despite a sluggish start, defeated McKendree University 101-66 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  The Illini fell behind early 17-6, as McKendree started out red-hot from behind the arc.  Coach John Groce said in his postgame press conference that "he wanted to see if they could work their way out of it, and they did".  The Illini recovered nicely and took a 47-39 lead into the locker room at halftime, and came out in the second half and outscored their guests by a 54-27 margin.  Tracy Abrams led the Illini in scoring with 16 points, while newcomers Rayvonte Rice and freshman Jaylon Tate each added 13.  Jon Ekey, a transfer from Illinois State, also scored in double figures with 12 points. The Illini will wrap up the exhibition portion of the season on Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Timberwolves of Northwood University to Champaign.  Game time is set for 5:00 pm central time.

     Credit Illini volleyball coach Kevin Hambly with scheduling aggressively, and the fact that he has done so may cost him come tournament time,  The Illini have had a grueling schedule, and with so many Big Ten teams ranked in the top 25, it certainly has't gotten any easier.  After upsetting #16 Wisconsin last Saturday night in Madison 3-1, the Illini felt like they were maybe back on the right track to a NCAA tournament berth.  The Illini ventured to Nebraska to face the 11th ranked Cornhuskers, and Lincoln is always a tough place to play, regardless of whether or not Nebraska is ranked.  The Illini didn't take care of business against the Huskers, falling 3-0 to drop their record to 9-12 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten.  The Illini are in serious danger of not qualifying for the NCAA tourney, which they will be a host for later this fall.  The Illini need to get back to business and soon, and that will start this weekend when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Hawkeyes on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT).

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team concludes the regular season on Thursday afternoon when they battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers (2:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini are desperately seeking a victory in order to get them into the Big Ten Tournament, which starts next week in Champaign.  The Illini split their contests last weekend, losing at Michigan 2-0 on Friday night, then coming back on Sunday afternoon to defeat Michigan State 2-0.  The Illini enter the Minnesota match at 9-7-2 overall and 4-5-1 in Big Ten play.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Still Searching

     Nobody said that this would be easy.

     The 2013 Fighting Illini football season is at the halfway point, and although they are a little better off this season than they were last year at this time, the main focus continues to be the Big Ten losing streak, which is currently at 16 games.  Granted, the beginning of the conference season was a brutal stretch, with games at Nebraska, and then home contests with Wisconsin and Michigan State.  The Illini lost to the Badgers 56-32 last Saturday, and as expected, Wisconsin kept the ball on the ground for the majority of the game, racking up 289 of their 478 yards via the run.  The Illini found themselves in a familiar position early in the game, as they fell behind 21-0 in the first 10 minutes of the game, thanks to some mental errors and turnovers.  Illini quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase had a decent day, completing 20 of 27 passes for 249 yards, but did not throw any touchdown passes.  Scheelhaase did have a one yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter, but the two passing scores were done by the other quarterbacks on the roster, Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey.  O'Toole found Spencer Harris for a 29 yard score late in the game, while Bailey's touchdown went to tight end Matt LaCosse shortly before halftime.  Bailey continues to impress in his short time in Champaign, and it should be quite a battle next season when he and Wes Lunt competes for the starting job for 2014.  O'Toole seems to be the odd man out next season, but keep in mind that he will also be competing for the starting job, even though it appears to be a two horse race between Bailey and Lunt at this point.

     The Illini will take on a Michigan State Spartans team this Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ABC) that comes into the game at 6-1 overall and unbeaten in conference play at 3-0. It is homecoming in Champaign, and the Illini would like nothing else than to give the alumni returning to campus a victory.  The Spartans don't have much of a prolific offense to speak of, but their defense is the main reason that they have been so dominant this season.  This could provide a problem for Scheelhaase and company, and should give the defense a cause for concern to step it up another notch to keep the game close.  This also is the best opportunity to end the streak, although there are much more winnable games on the schedule in the upcoming weeks.  The Illini currently sit at 3-3 overall and 0-2 in the Big Ten, and will look to break through the barrier that is the Spartans defense, who have only allowed 95 points on the season in their 6 games.

     Basketball has begun on the University of Illinois campus with the annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage taking place last Thursday night at the State Farm Center.  The team, who is very young this season, split into two teams and most players spent time on both the orange and the blue teams.  The blue team prevailed 59-51, with Rayvonte Rice and Nnanna Egwu each scoring 17 points to lead in scoring.  Sophomore walkon Mike LaTulip added 15 points, including a perfect 10-10 from the free throw line.  The three players that are ineligible to play this season because of transfer rules all looked pretty good, and they would be in the mix to play if they could.  Darius Paul, Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby all have to sit out this season, but Starks, if he would have received the waiver from the NCAA, could fill in handily at the point guard position.  Alas, he cannot play, so it is a moot point.  The Illini have their first of two exhibition games on Thursday evening when they welcome McKendree College to the State Farm Center.  The purpose of the exhibition games are to fine tune what the guys have been doing in practice, and also to match up against someone other than themselves.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team split two games this past weekend against ranked teams, losing to #4 Penn State on Friday night in 5 games, and then defeating #17 Ohio State on Sunday afternoon 3-1.  Bucking the trend of the Friday-Saturday routine, the Illini ventured north to Evanston on Wednesday evening to battle the Northwestern Wildcats in a mid-week showdown, and were stunned in 5 games after taking a 2-0 lead.  The Illini will travel to Madison on Sunday afternoon to battle the Wisconsin Badgers in what has emerged as a must-win match.  The Illini are fighting for their NCAA tournament lives right now, as they are 8-11 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten.

     The Illini women's soccer team had one match this past weekend, and it was one to forget, as they lost at Penn State 5-0 on Sunday afternoon.  The soccer season is winding down, and the Illini will welcome Michigan and Michigan State to Champaign this weekend for their final home matches of the regular season.  The Illini will battle Michigan on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), and then will entertain the Spartans on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT), hoping to improve their place in the Big Ten standings.  The Illini currently are 8-6-2 overall and 3-4-1 in the Big Ten heading into this weekend's action.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

     It is not common for a football team to have two bye weeks during the season.  It is an even rarer feat for those bye weeks to occur within 4 weeks of one another.  This is exactly what Tim Beckman and his Fighting Illini football team have experienced over the past month, and it is something that he has never seen before in any level of coaching.  The drawback of this break in the action is now the Illini embark on the stretch run of the season, which consists of seven straight games, and within that stretch, they hope to break an ominous record, that being the 15 game losing streak in the Big Ten.  The schedule doesn't lay out favorably, since the next few weeks feature games that the Illini will not be expected to win.  The last time out, the Illini ventured to Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Nebraska to take on the Cornhuskers of Nebraska, and although the offense had been playing pretty well leading up to that game, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase and his offensive unit was smacked back to reality in a 39-19 loss, extending the Illini's conference slide.  The Illini took the bye week in stride, working on some of the issues that have led to this long streak, but at the same time, much of it cannot be helped.  Take the defense, for example.  The Illini have had major concerns on defense all season long, and it doesn't help when you only have 2 seniors that have seen significant action in the past.  Defensive end Tim Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown, who was injured last season, anchor the unit, which is comprised primarily of sophomores and a few freshmen and juniors sprinkled in.  Beckman has used plenty of freshmen this season, and with sophomores Mason Monheim and Mike Svetina seeing considerable action again this season, the break has been a welcome one.  But, as with everything, now it is back to business, and the meat of the schedule still to come, beginning with a prime time showdown with Wisconsin under the lights at Memorial Stadium this Saturday (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Badgers manhandled Northwestern last Saturday 35-6 to improve their record to 4-2 overall and 2-1 in the Big Ten.  Even though the Badgers have a new coach in Gary Andersen, it is pretty much the same Wisconsin squad, with a strong ground game still the norm.  This season, the Badgers have the conference's leading rushing attack (298.2 ypg), as well as total offense (519.5 ypg).  Wisconsin sophomore Melvin Gordon leads the team with 145 yards per game, and that total is good for #3 nationally.  The Illini, who are 3-2 overall and 0-1 in the Big Ten, need to step it up on defense or else they will see that conference losing streak extend another game.

      After spending their second consecutive weekend away from Huff Hall, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team came away with another split against their Indiana counterparts.  On Friday night, the Illini were defeated 3-1 by #20 Purdue in West Lafayette, but avenged the second loss on the weekend by besting Indiana in straight sets 3-0 on Saturday night in Bloomington.  The Illini are currently 7-9 overall on the season, and 3-3 in the Big Ten, and return to the confines of Huff Hall this weekend against yet another pair of ranked opponents.  On Friday evening, the Illini welcome always tough Penn State (7:00 pm CT, BTN) , who carry a #4 national ranking into Champaign.  Then, on Sunday afternoon, the Illini will host #17 Ohio State (2:00 pm CT, No TV) for their annual "Workout For The Cure" event, where they will wear pink jerseys to continue the awareness of breast cancer.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team hits the road this week, when they travel north to battle in-state rival Northwestern on Thursday evening (6:30 PM CT, No TV), then will travel to State College on Saturday to battle #17 Penn State (11:00 am CT, BTN).  The Illini defeated #20 Wisconsin last Saturday in Champaign 3-2, and will carry a 7-5-2 overall record into Evanston, with a 2-3-1 mark in conference games.

     The calendar says October, so that means that basketball season is right around the corner.  Your first chance to see the 2013-14 Fighting Illini men's basketball team happens on Thursday evening at 7:00, when they will conduct their annual Orange and Blue Scrimmage at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  You will need a program to identify this season's team, as there are 9 newcomers to the roster.  The only players with any prior experience for second year coach John Groce are senior Joseph Bertrand, juniors Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, and sophomore walk-on Mike LaTulip.  The Illini have a talented freshman class, with Simeon players Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate, Malcolm Hill from Belleville, and a couple of out of state players, Maverick Morgan (Springboro, OH) and Austin Colbert (Chesapeake, VA).  Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season after transferring in from Drake, is now eligible, and will benefit greatly from the year on the sidelines.  Transfer Jon Ekey from Illinois State, will become eligible immediately, and will look to fulfill the role that Tyler Griffey provided last season.  A trio of players have to sit out after transferring in from other schools, and will look to gain that experience that Rice received last season when he did the same thing.  Aaron Cosby, who came in from Seton Hall, and Darius Paul, the younger brother of former Illini Brandon Paul, came in from Western Michigan.  A third player, Ahmad Starks, was denied his waiver to play this season after transferring in from Oregon State to be with his grandmother, who is ill.  Starks is from Chicago, and was hoping to play before the NCAA stepped in and did not grant his hardship waiver.  The Illini will play the first of their two exhibition games on October 24th when they welcome McKendree College.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

On to conference play.

     Time to address the elephant in the room.

     The Fighting Illini football team wrapped up their non-conference portion of the 2013 season by thrashing winless Miami (Ohio) 50-14 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign to run their season record to 3-1 overall. The prolific offense for the Illini kept on moving full steam ahead, as they racked up 601 yards of total offense, led by another strong performance by redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase, who completed 19 of 24 passes for 278 yards and 5 touchdowns.  Even though he doesn't want to admit it, this resurgence for Scheelhaase can be attributed to new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, who has brought new life to a dying offense.  The constant game of keeping the defense on their toes has been a staple of Cubit, and he often says that he doesn't consult with other offensive coordinators, he talks with defensive gurus to see what bothers them.  Genius!  Anyway, Cubit has opened up his bag of tricks in every game this season, and there is undoubtedly more in the coffers as the Big Ten season begins this weekend.  Scheelhaase involved 11 receivers into the action against the Redhawks, led by Josh Ferguson, who caught 5 balls for 77 yards and a score.  Ferguson has been a favorite target of Scheelhaase's so far this season, and the junior has taken full advantage of the favor.  Perhaps an even more encouraging sign has been the usage of the tight ends in the offense.  Matt LaCosse caught his first two touchdowns on Saturday, finishing the game with 68 yards and catching 3 passes.  All told, the Illini tight ends caught four touchdowns, something that Illini Nation has been wanting to see for a very long time.  As far as running the ball goes, the load was shared by 7 players, led by Donovonn Young, who had 11 carries for 70 yards.  Ferguson was just as effective in the backfield, getting 8 touches for 74 yards, making him a dangerous commodity from either facet of the offense.  The Illini amassed 305 yards on the ground with two scores, one by sophomore Devin Church in garbage time, and the other by true freshman Aaron Bailey, who continues to impress.

     Now, back to the subject of that pachyderm in the room.  The Illini are currently on a 14 game losing streak in the Big Ten, dating back to the 2011 season.  Going into the season, the early conference schedule looked daunting, with games against the top tier of the league looming.  The Illini will take to the road for the first time this season when they travel to Lincoln, Nebraska to battle the Cornhuskers of Nebraska (11:00 am CT, ESPNU) on Saturday morning.  Nebraska comes into the game at 3-1 as well, but their defense has been a subject of concern in the early stages of the 2013 season.  The Cornhuskers defeated South Dakota State 59-20, but in their 4 games thus far this season, they have allowed scores of 34, 13, 41 and 20.  What does this mean?  Simply, a win is ripe for the picking and a chance to put this long conference losing streak in the rear view mirror.  Besides the defensive woes, Nebraska is also dealing with their starting quarterback, Taylor Martinez, having an injury and may not play against the Illini.  If Martinez cannot go, look for either Tommy Armstrong or Ron Kellogg III to start under center.  The mood in Lincoln has been a little tempered this season, as head coach Bo Pelini has come under fire for some comments that he made a couple years ago.  If the Illini can somehow come away with a victory Saturday in Lincoln, it will be a statement win and could re-establish the Illini as a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten.  But, not to put the cart before the horse, that is a tall order.

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team held their official opening of the practice season with an "Illini Street Jam", and judging by reports that I have heard, it was a rousing success.  The team came in a military truck, and both the men's and women's teams were introduced to the crowd.  The teams had camoflage shirts on, and when head coach John Groce was announced, he came out in full military attire and began doing push-ups.  The women's team couldn't take part in any drills since their practices didn't officially begin until Monday, but they did take part in some of the activities not requiring touching a basketball.  In other news concerning the program, the long-awaited news of the status of transfer guard Ahmad Starks' fate was announced, and it was not good news for Groce and the Illini.  Starks, who is from Chicago, had transferred from Oregon State to be closer to his ailing grandmother, who helped raise him as a child.  According to the NCAA rules, a player can transfer from one school to another and use the hardship waiver if he is within 100 miles of his home.  Chicago to Champaign is about 125 miles, so the possibility of this waiver being denied was always apparent.  Groce was quoted as saying that "he was disappointed in the decision, but they need to move on and prepare for the 2013-14 season".  Surely it is a blow to the Illini team, as they now have just 11 players on the roster, with 10 of those on scholarship.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team continues to work their way through the season, and split a pair of matches this past weekend in Champaign.  On Friday evening the Illini welcomed Iowa to the State Farm Center, and the Illini came away with a 3-0 victory (25-19, 25-18, 25-21).  On Saturday afternoon, the team returned to their more familiar surroundings and welcomed a tough Nebraska team that came in ranked #12 in the nation.  The Illini lost in straight sets (25-20, 25-14, 25-22), but made it close except for the second game.  The Illini are 5-7 overall and 1-1 in conference play, and will hit the road this weekend, traveling to Michigan State on Friday evening to battle the #9 ranked Spartans (6:00 pm CT, No TV), and then complete their swing in Michigan by taking on the #14 ranked Wolverines in Ann Arbor on Saturday night (6:00 pm CT, BTN).

     The Illini women's soccer team split a couple of games this past weekend, defeating Iowa Friday evening 2-1, while dropping a close match 3-2 to Nebraska on Sunday afternoon for the program's annual "Soccerfest" event.  The Illini are 6-3-2 overall and 1-1-1 in conference play, and will also be on the road this weekend, heading to both Purdue and Indiana.  The Purdue match begins on Friday evening at 6:00 pm CT and they will wrap up the weekend with the game against the Hoosiers on Sunday at 11:00 am CT.  Although there will be no live television for either match, the contest against the Hoosiers will be streamed digitally on the BTDN.



Friday, September 27, 2013

Back To Work

     The bye week is now over, and it's time to get back to the matter at hand, which is the football season.  The Fighting Illini football team enjoyed a much needed bye week this past week, and according to head coach Tim Beckman, "it couldn't have come at a better time".  Since the Illini are playing so many young players this season, the bye week gave them a chance to rest their legs and prepare for the final non-conference tilt, when they welcome the Redhawks of Miami (Ohio) to Memorial Stadium in Champaign on Saturday morning (11:00 am CT, BTN).  The last time out, the Illini were defeated for the first time this season 34-24 by the Washington Huskies at Chicago's historic Soldier Field.  Even though the Illini lost the game, some positives can be taken from that game.  Most notably is the fact that the Illini never quit when they got down early in the third quarter.  The team rebounded, and made it a competitive contest, and even though the Illini dropped a couple of passes that could have resulted in touchdowns, the future of the program has the needle pointing upward.  Now on to this week's game.  The Redhawks have been struggling so far this season, only totaling 448 yards of offense in their first 3 games, all of which have been losses.  The Miami quarterback, Austin Boucher, has accounted for 268 of those yards, but only has thrown one touchdown,  Needless to say, the Redhawks are not firing on all cylinders, but this is the type of game that the Illini cannot overlook for any reason.  The Illini have equaled their win total of last season, and a win on Saturday will surpass that total.  I remember giving the Illini four wins at the beginning of the season, and I am not about to adjust that total.  However, I am starting to see some positive signs in and around the program, and this year's team seems more cohesive than the one that self-destructed last season.  But, bear in mind, the losing streak in the Big Ten is still 14 and counting, so there is still some work to be done before the Illini will be "officially back".  But, things are looking up.

     The future schedules have now been completed up through the 2017 season, and with the addition of a home and home series with North Carolina in 2015 and 2016, the quality of opponents are on the upswing.  Earlier this season, the Big Ten conference came out and said that they would refrain from playing FCS opponents and scheduling them in the future, but as you will look at the list of schedules in the years to come (, you will notice that Murray State appears on there in 2016.  The Racers are an FCS opponent, but this was already scheduled before that mandate went into effect.  There is even a game scheduled in 2018, which seems like a very long time away (actually it is).

     Kevin Hambly's women's volleyball team ventured out to Tobacco Road this past weekend, and the trip down that road wasn't one to remember.  The Illini lost to #15 North Carolina in straight sets on Friday night, then made the short trip to Durham on Saturday night when they were defeated by the Duke Blue Devils 3-1.  The Illini, although 4-6 on the season, are still among the nation's top 25 teams, mainly due to their schedule, which has been one of the toughest in the nation.  The Illini begin Big Ten play this weekend when they welcome Iowa to the State Farm Center on Friday night (7:00 pm CT, No TV), then get paid a visit by yet another top 25 team, Nebraska, on Saturday afternoon (4:00 pm, BTN).  The match on Friday at the State Farm Center is the test run for the NCAA Regional that will be held in December.

     Janet Rayfield's women's soccer team began conference play last weekend in Columbus, and played Ohio State to a 1-1, double overtime tie.  The Illini will return to the Illini soccer complex this weekend to battle Iowa on Friday night (7:00 pm, CT), then will welcome Nebraska on Sunday afternoon for the annual Illini Soccerfest (4:00 pm, CT).  The Illini are currently 5-2-2 overall and 0-0-1 in Big Ten play heading into this weekend's action.

     Illini basketball practice officially begins this weekend, and if there wasn't a lot going on campus, both the men's and women's teams are holding "Illini Street Jam", in which the corner of Green and Wright Streets in the heart of campustown will be transformed into a basketball court.  Always thinking outside the box, the Illinois DIA is hoping that this event will be well attended.  The festivities begin at around 7:30 pm on Saturday evening, and should last for about an hour.  Be there!

Thursday, September 19, 2013

     You can view the 2013 Fighting Illini football season as a season of quarters.  With 3 games now in the books, that would signal the end of the first quarter.  In grading the Illini through the end of that quarter, it would be fair to assume that they have done fairly well, most deserving of a B- to C+ grade.  Already, Tim Beckman's team has exceeded expectations, and undoubtedly, earned him at least another year as the head coach.  The dominating win over Cincinnati can be attributed to this, but last Saturday at historic Soldier Field in Chicago, the Illini held their own against a formidable Washington squad, losing 34-24.  In looking at the statistics, it becomes apparent that the Huskies were dominant, out-gaining the Illini in total yards 615 to 327.  Washington, who runs a fast-paced offense, was able to get off 89 plays against the Illini, averaging a play roughly every 10-11 seconds.  The Huskies struck in quick flashes, led by their outstanding running back Bishop Sankey, who carried the ball 35 times for 208 and a touchdown.  Washington quarterback Keith Price was also very efficient, completing 28 of his 35 passes for 342 yards and a pair of touchdowns.  Sankey also caught a touchdown pass from Price, but his main target was Kevin Smith, who caught 5 passes for 104 yards.  The Huskies' outstanding tight end, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, was not effective, only catching 3 passes for 8 yards.  Seferian-Jenkins has the build to play at the next level, and the fact that he is coming off an injury could stand the reason why he was severely limited in the game.  On the Illinois stat side, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase didn't have the best of days, only completing 9 of 25 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.  However, the blame cannot be dumped solely on Scheelhaase, as 2 receivers, Ryan Lankford and Steve Hull, both dropped sure touchdown passes at some point in the game.  As far as the running game went for the Illini, they rushed 36 times for 136 yards, and scored twice on the ground, once by Scheelhaase, and the other score was a 10 yard scamper by freshman Aaron Bailey.  In his short career, Bailey continues to impress, and gives the Illini another added dimension that Scheelhaase doesn't possess. The aforementioned Lankford only caught 3 passes on the night, but one of those was a quick strike for 72 yards that did go for a touchdown.  When the Illini got down 31-10 in the third quarter, things began to remind Illini fans of last year, when the team would pretty much mail it in and accept the consequences.  However, this team has a different mantra, and the strike from Scheelhaase to Lankford brought the Illini ever closer.  The Illini narrowed the gap further on Bailey's scamper, but couldn't get any closer to drop the game.

     The Illini enjoy the first of their 2 bye weeks this weekend, and the time off is welcomed, since this is still a young team and a lot of players have seen action already.  The Illini will conclude their non-conference portion of the season next Saturday when they welcome the Redhawks of Miami (Ohio) to Memorial Stadium (11:00 am CT, BTN).  To think of a possible 3-1 pre-Big Ten record would have been unheard of at the beginning of the season, and with the conference being somewhat down this season than in years past, the dreaded B word is being bandied about.  But, I'm getting a little ahead of myself here, so I won't go there.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball team continues to welcome any and all comers to their schedule, and as evidenced by last weekend's Illini Classic, they can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the country.  The Illini welcomed Arizona State, #6 Washington and #2 Texas to Huff Hall last weekend, and although they came away with a 1-2 mark on the weekend, they feel confident that the upgraded competition will serve them well once the Big Ten season begins.  The Illini defeated the Sun Devils 3-2, but lost to the Huskies 3-1 and the Longhorns 3-2, in front of huge crowds for all matches, including the Arizona State match, which began at 10:00 am on Friday morning.  The Illini will wrap up their non-conference portion of the schedule this coming weekend, when they travel to ACC country to battle the Tar Heels of North Carolina on Friday night (6:00 pm CT), and then over to Durham on Saturday evening to battle the Duke Blue Devils (5:30 pm CT).  The Illini currently stand at 4-4 overall heading into the weekend action.

     The Illini women's soccer team finished the non-conference portion of their season this past weekend with a pair of wins, defeating Indiana State 3-2 on Friday night, then taking down Florida International on Sunday afternoon 4-0.  The Illini improved their season mark to 5-2-1 with the wins, and will begin Big Ten play this Friday when they travel to Columbus to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes (4:00 pm CT).  The match against Ohio State is the only contest on the schedule for this weekend, so that will give Coach Janet Rayfield's squad a chance to rest before the meat of the conference schedule gets going next weekend.

     Finally for this week, a bit of basketball news.  The 2013-14 men's basketball team will conduct an "Illini Street Jam" on Saturday, September 28th at 7:30 pm at the corner of Wright and Green Streets in the heart of the University of Illinois campus.  Both the men's and women's teams will be unveiled at this event, and both teams will also participate in the jam, which is free and open to the public.  This event coincides with Dad's Day and the football game with Miami (Ohio), and will follow the volleyball match at Huff Hall against #12 Nebraska, which starts at 4:00 pm.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sign of Progress?

    Color me surprised.

     After an auspicious start to the season, in which they narrowly defeated Southern Illinois 42-34 in the opening game to the 2013 campaign, the Fighting Illini football team were looking for any positive signs to move the program forward.

     They received that, and then some.

     The Illini had one of the more complete performances in recent memory in defeating the Cincinnati Bearcats 45-17 last Saturday at Memorial Stadium in Champaign.  The offense, which is apparently still very fluid, once again posted great numbers, amassing 522 yards of total offense.  Redshirt senior quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase continued his early season success, completing 26 of 37 passes for 322 yards and throwing for 4 touchdowns.  Scheelhaase, who seems to be thriving under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit, involved 11 receivers into the game, led by junior college transfer Martize Barr, who caught 5 passes for 72 yards, including a nifty touchdown pass diving into the endzone.  Steve Hull, Josh Ferguson and Evan Wilson also caught passes for scores, and what is most significant about Wilson is that this offense is finally utilizing the tight end, which couldn't be a better option at this point.  With the likes of Wilson, Matt LaCosse and Jon Davis among the stable of tight ends, this crew is proving to be one of the most talented group at the position in several years.  Besides the passing game, the Illini also had the running game going as well, as they rushed for 210 yards collectively.  Junior Donovonn Young led the attack on the ground with 64 yards on 14 carries and 1 touchdown.  Perhaps one reason for the success in this game could have been the return of lineman Ted Karras, who missed the first game with an injury.  Karras brings a level of authority to the offensive line, and according to Coach Tim Beckman, "he is very vocal and emotional leader".  The defense, which was a concern coming into the season and didn't quell critics after their lackluster effort against the Salukis, fared much better against the Bearcats, and could be considered a success only surrendering 17 points to a team that scored 49 a week earlier against Purdue.

     Going into the season, the non-conference portion of the schedule appeared daunting, and the road doesn't get any easier, as the Illini venture away from Memorial Stadium for the first time in the 2013 season Saturday to take on the Washington Huskies for the Chicago Homecoming at historic Soldier Field (5:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Huskies, who were idle last week, defeated Boise State two weeks ago 38-6, and feature a high-powered attack from both ends of the offense.  Quarterback Keith Price completed 23 of 31 passes for 324 yards and 2 touchdowns in the win over the Broncos, while Bishop Sankey carried the ball 25 times for 161 yards, finding the endzone twice.  Jaydon Mickens caught 9 passes for 109 yards to lead the Huskies in receiving, but did not catch any for a touchdown.  Against Boise State, Washington averaged just 9 seconds per play, so they can run a lot of plays in a short amount of time.  Head coach Steve Sarkisian is a true proponent of the west coast offense, and he is the same person that led the offense for USC the last time the Illini went to the Rose Bowl.  Whatever the outcome is against Washington this weekend, it is apparent that the Illini are turning some heads and that this season may not turn out to be such a downer as originally thought.  But, I will caution, it is still early.

     After splitting matches last weekend in Ames, Iowa, the Fighting Illini volleyball team returns to the confines of Huff Hall to host the 30th annual Illini Classic.  Starting on Thursday evening, there will be 4 teams in action, including #2 Texas, #6 Washington and #27 Arizona State batlling the Illini over the 3 day tourney.  The Illini will begin play on Friday morning when they take on Arizona State at 10:00 AM, then will play Washington later that evening at 6:30 PM.  The Illini will then take on the #2 ranked Longhorns Saturday evening at 7:00 PM, in which promises to be a showdown on the volleyball court.  The Illini are currently 3-2 overall on the season.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team returns home to the soccer complex this weekend to take on Indiana State and Florida International in a pair of matches.  The Illini lost once and tied the other game this past weekend in the Sun Devil Classic on the campus of Arizona State.  The Illini lost to the host Sun Devils 4-3 in double overtime, and then came back two days later to tie Arizona 1-1, also in double overtime.  The match this weekend at home against Indiana State on Friday night at 7:00 pm, and the match on Sunday afternoon against FIU begins at 12:00 noon.  The Illini are currently 3-2-1 overall on the season.

     Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce received another official visit from a recruit over the past weekend, as point guard Quentin Snider visited campus as a prospective recruit.  A decision, although not confirmed yet, could come any day, as early as Thursday afternoon.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

A win is a win?

     At least the updates to the stadium were easy on the eyes.

     The Fighting Illini raised the curtain on the 2013 season this past Saturday, and judging by the way the team looked on the field, there is still a lot of work to be done.  There is a philosophy that says a win is a win, but I don't think you can apply this here.  True, the Illini did win the game 42-34 over the Salukis of Southern Illinois, but very easily could have lost the game if a couple of plays had gone the other way.  The Illini offense, led by new OC Bill Cubit, looked revamped, as redshirt quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase set a career high in passing yards with 416 yards, which is good for tenth all-time at Illinois.  The superb outing by Scheelhaase earned him the Big Ten offensive player of the week, and as it turned out, he needed every bit of them for the Illini to come out with a victory.  The offense appears to be fine, but the defense, now that is another story.  The Illini wasted no time getting on the scoreboard, as they moved down the field and came away with a Taylor Zalewski field goal to take an early 3-0 lead.  A lot of preseason hype was placed on true freshman Aaron Bailey and the wonderment of when he would see his first collegiate action.  Bailey was able to score his first touchdown in the third quarter, as he rushed up the middle for a 2 yard score.  Scheelhaase's favorite target was wideout Ryan Lankford, who caught 6 balls for 115 yards, but was held out of the endzone.  Running back Josh Ferguson caught 4 passes for 103 yards, including a 53 yard touchdown strike from Scheelhaase.  Junior Donovonn Young had an auspicious start, only gaining 6 yards on 12 carries, but scoring from 2 yards out.  No matter how you slice it, the win just didn't feel very good, and it proves the notion that this defense isn't very good and is going to allow a large number of points this season.  Special teams looked somewhat better than they did last year, especially the kick return team.  Sophomore V'Angelo Bentley returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown, and swung the momentum back to the Illini.  It turns out that Bentley's return was the difference in the game, as the Salukis made a late push to make the game interesting.  It is also worth noting that the next series after Bentley's return, he was burned by a SIU wideout for a touchdown.  Turning a positive into a negative?  Could be.

     This has to have the Illini's next opponent, the Cincinnati Bearcats, licking their chops as they come into Champaign this coming Saturday (11:00 AM CST, ESPN2).  The Bearcats welcomed Purdue's new coach Darrell Hazell to the Big Ten with a 42-7 thrashing of the Boilermakers in their season opener at Cincinnati.  The Bearcats used a balanced attack, rushing for 221 yards on the ground, while getting 204 yards through the air.  Cincinnati quarterback Munchie Legaux completed 13 of 20 passes for 145 yards and a touchdown, but also threw an interception.  All told in the game, 12 receivers caught at least one pass for the Bearcats.  For the Illini to even stand a chance in this game, the defense needs to improve markedly, and fast.  As with all of the high powered offenses in the Big Ten, the Illini need to find a way to defend the pass, or else it will be another long season.

     Fighting Illini men's basketball coach John Groce got some great news this past weekend, as 5-star power forward Leron Black verbally committed to the Illini.  Black, who was highly sought after by Indiana and Tennessee, is from Memphis, Tennessee and brings the total of recruits to 2 for the 2014 season.  Champaign Centennial junior Michael Finke is the other player in the class that has given Groce a verbal commitment.  Still waiting on the decision from big man Cliff Alexander, who still has the Illini listed among his choices, although Kansas and Michigan State are also in the mix.

     The Fighting Illini women's volleyball team began the 2013 season on a good note, by going 2-1 in the Long Beach State Mizuno Invitational on the west coast.  The Illini began play by upsetting #17 Florida in straight sets, then dropping a match later on Friday night to the host team.  The Illini came back on Saturday night and defeated Kentucky to complete a successful weekend.  The schedule doesn't get any easier for the Illini, as they are headed to Ames, Iowa this coming weekend to battle #14 San Diego on Saturday afternoon, then coming back on Sunday taking on the #11 host Iowa State Cyclones.

     The Illini women's soccer team are also underway on the season, and after an opening loss to Notre Dame, the Illini have now reeled off three straight wins, capped by home victories over College of Charleston (6-2) and Illinois State (5-1) to run their season record to 3-1.  The Illini will venture west this coming weekend to battle Arizona State on Friday night, then will take on Arizona on Sunday afternoon.  The Illini hope to have their star Vanessa DiBernardo in tow, as she was called up to the US women's national team for play on Tuesday.  This is a huge honor for DiBernardo, and will be a significant loss for the Illini if she misses any time due to the callup.


Wednesday, August 21, 2013

And away we go!

     Welcome to the second year of the Tim Beckman era at Illinois.

     The inaugural season of Beckman at the helm of the Fighting Illini football team was one that could easily be forgotten.  The Illini stumbled out of the gate en route to a dismal 2-10 season, and doubts arose almost from the get-go regarding whether or not Athletic Director Mike Thomas made the right choice.  To defend Beckman for a moment, he wasn't really given a whole lot to work with and didn't have much time to put things in place.  However, the second season beckons (a little play with words, if you will indulge me for a moment), and major questions still arise.  The Illini are in the waning stages of preseason training camp, leading up to the first game on August 31st.  Here now, is a look at the offensive unit, fresh off a week in Rantoul for their annual off-campus training camp.

     The quarterback position seems to be one of the only spots on offense that is somewhat set at this current juncture of the season, with redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase set to lead under center.  Scheelhaase will have yet another offensive coordinator to work with, as Bill Cubit comes in from Western Michigan, where he was a head coach for the past few seasons.  This year will be a bit of a difference for Beckman and the offensive play calling, as he has instilled that duty to Cubit solely instead of call-by-committee like it was last season.  Battling Scheelhaase for playing time will be junior Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey, who has shown a lot of promise thus far in practice.  Scheelhaase, who was married in the off-season, is back to near 100%, and despite a tweak to an ankle last week in practice, will be the go-to guy when the Salukis come to town for the first game.  The running back position is also one that has some experience returning, as Donovonn Young appears to be the leading candidate to carry the ball, with Josh Ferguson, and Dami Ayoola also expected to see quite a bit of action.  True freshman Kendrick Foster also will fight some of the veterans for playing time.

     The wide receiver position returns a lot of players from last season, led in part by Ryan Lankford and Spencer Harris, who caught the bulk of passes in 2012.  Justin Hardee will also figure into the mix, as will junior college transfer Martize Barr, who has a lot of upside.  Barr, who brings a lot of energy to the team, has told me on several occasions that the junior college game is markedly different than he has seen so far at the Big Ten level.  Devin Church, who was injured last season and missed a good portion of his freshman year, is back to full strength and should see plenty of action.  Miles Osei, who has fully converted from quarterback, will see his share of passes as well, and Steve Hull, providing that he can stay healthy, should also serve a prominent role in the offense.  As far as tight ends go, Cubit vows that he will use them much more than in past seasons, and there are quite a few players to choose from.  Evan Wilson and Jon Davis will be utilized a great deal, as will Trevor Kanteman, who transfers in from Pierce College in California, having sat out the entire season due to an injury.  Sophomore Matt LaCosse, who has an NFL body, looks to make some noise, as will Tim Clary, who was the star of last season's spring game.  Between this cast of characters and the running backs, Scheelhaase (or whoever) should have no trouble finding someone to pass the football to.

     The offensive line was a major concern last season, and even though a lot of players return from last season, the position is still a question and work in progress.  Corey Lewis returns after multiple knee surgeries at one of the tackle positions, and some other mainstays, including Michael Heitz, Ted Karras and Simon Cvijanovic.  Alex Hill will begin the year at center, but injuries could move some people around before all is said and done.  Earlier this week in practice, Karras hurt himself and was seen on crutches after the session.  Never one to expound on injuries, Beckman naturally was non-committal on Karras' injury and status as game week approaches.  If Karras is out for any length of time, that could deal a huge blow to an already thin (no pun intended) O-Line.  Joe Spencer will fill in for Karras during his absence, but other players such as junior college transfer Dallas Hinkhouse, Jesse Chadwell and Pat Flavin still need to build some additional muscle in order to be effective at this level.

     Yes, numerous challenges await this Illini team as the season opener gets closer, but with Beckman, he is still taking it one day at a time, one game at a time.  Next week, I will get defensive and talk about the other side of the ball for the Illini, who have some challenges of their own to work through.

Monday, August 12, 2013

The Dawn Of A New Season

     August is a month that wears many hats.  For some, it signals the end of summer for parents and the eventual return to school of their kids, while others that still have baseball teams in the playoff race (sorry White Sox and Cubs fans), envision dreams of their clubs getting to the World Series.  But for many, August is the beginning of the football season on all levels, from youth leagues to the NFL.  The Fighting Illini began practice on Monday in preparation for the upcoming season, and for second year coach Tim Beckman, there are a lot of questions that need to be answered.  The roster is markedly different than it was last year, as it has been overhauled to include 33 new players, either as incoming freshmen or junior college transfers. There are also four new coaches on the staff, including Bill Cubit, who takes over as offensive coordinator and brings to the position a lot of experience, having been a head coach at Western Michigan for the past seven seasons.  Cubit, who was hand-picked by Beckman, will take sole responsibility of the play calling duties on offense, a much different approach than it was last year when the duties were handled by Chris Beatty and Billy Gonzales, both whom were not retained.  Beckman is in a tough situation this season, having not a lot of depth at many positions, and losing quite a few players to the NFL last season, especially on defense.  Tim Kynard is the lone returnee on the defensive line, and will anchor that unit by bringing along quite a few players that have limited or no experience.  A couple sophomores that played extensively last season as freshmen, Mike Svetina and Mason Monheim, are now considered seasoned veterans, and will lead the linebacking corps along with senior Jonathan Brown, who was named a preseason player to watch on the Butkus Award list.  With the defense having a lot of questions coming off a season that saw the Illini give up a ton of points, there is room for much improvement.

     On the offensive side of the ball, redshirt senior Nathan Scheelhaase returns for his fifth and final season at quarterback, but he will have some competition as Reilly O'Toole and true freshman Aaron Bailey are second and third on the depth chart, respectively.  Transfer Wes Lunt, who played last season and started as a freshman at Oklahoma State, left Stillwater last season and due to Cowboys coach Mike Gundy limiting Lunt to transfer anywhere he wanted, basically okayed Louisville and Illinois as the destinations for Lunt to transfer to.  From nearby Rochester, Lunt always wanted to play for the Illini, but several factors detoured him from Champaign to Oklahoma State, but that is a topic for another day.  The Illini begin training camp at the former Chanute Air Force Base this week, and over the course of the next couple of weeks, I will preview each of the units leading up to the season opener on August 31st against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.  Camp Rantoul practices are open to the public, and can be viewed at

     Summer is a slow time on the basketball front, but the recruiting news seems to be ongoing year-round.  The hot commodity these days is big man Cliff Alexander from Chicago Curie, who apparently still has the Illini on his final list.  Alexander would be a huge coup for Coach John Groce, and could very well be the domino that leads a lot of others to fall downstate.  Groce has made major strides on the recruiting front since arriving in Champaign, and is trying to build the Illinois program back up from where it sagged in the last couple seasons under former coach Bruce Weber.  The schedule, which is still being finalized for the 2013-14 season, will hopefully be released in the next few weeks.

     The last few seasons have been some of the best for the Fighting Illini women's track team, but those days may be coming to an end as coach Tonja Buford-Bailey made the decision to leave Illinois and take the associate head coach at the University of Texas.  When that news surfaced, immediate concerns were realized about the Illini's star Ashley Spencer, who was recruited by Bailey to Illinois.  Sure enough, Spencer and Morolake Akinosun have decided to join Bailey at Texas, and their departure will significantly hamper the program, at least for the next couple for years.  Having known Tonja for many years, I wish her nothing but the best in her new position.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Illini Year in Review - That's A Wrap!

     Now that summer is officially upon us, it is time to bid adieu to the sports season at the University of Illinois for the 2012-13 season.  It was a season of change, and also one of a lot of ups and downs. The fall season didn't go as well as one would have hoped, with the football team leading that downfall with a 2-10 record.  The speculation that first year coach Tim Beckman is on the hot seat quickly surfaced, and a major overhaul of the coaching staff was undertaken.  The major change on the staff was the hiring of Bill Cubit from Western Michigan to lead the offense.  Cubit comes to Illinois with a lot of credentials, and they seem to already be paying dividends with the adding of quarterback Wes Lunt, who transferred from Oklahoma State this past week.  Lunt earned the starting job for the Cowboys in his freshman year, but due to assistant coach Todd Monken leaving for Southern Mississsippi, caused Lunt to reconsider his future.  Oklahoma State head coach Mike Gundy restricted Lunt's available schools that he could transfer to, and it basically came down to the Illini and Louisville.  Lunt must sit out this coming year, but will have three years of eligibility starting in 2014.  Beckman all of a sudden has a stable of quarterbacks to choose from, with potential starter Nathan Scheelhaase competing with backup Reilly O'Toole and incoming freshman Aaron Bailey for playing time.  Beckman needs to have a better season in 2013 than his first season in Champaign, and even though the schedule doesn't favor success, the future all of a sudden got a little brighter.  It's a good problem to have.
     Coming off of a runner-up finish in the 2011 national championship, Illinois volleyball looked to be on the rise, but losing a lot of players from that team did not bode well for Kevin Hambly in 2012 as they finished 14-16 overall and missed the NCAA tournament a year after making their magical run.  However, things do look more promising for the volleyball team, as they have some talent coming in to complement the returning players, who will have a year of experience under their belt.  Could happy times return to Champaign?  We shall see.
     The Illini women's soccer team had a roller coaster season, finishing 10-9-4, which was good enough for an NCAA Tournament appearance.  Led by coach Janet Rayfield, the Illini advanced to the championship game of the Big Ten Tournament and will look to build on the momentum that they closed this past season on.

     The winter sports season seemed to go quite a bit better for Illinois sports teams, as both the men's and women's basketball teams began the climb from obscurity with new coaches at the helm.  For the men's team, new coach John Groce led the Illini back to the NCAA tournament with a 23-13 record, and thrilled fans with several exciting wins during the season, including the infamous upset of #1 Indiana on a last second shot by Tyler Griffey.  The Illini will look markedly different next season, losing seniors D. J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Griffey, while Mike Shaw, Myke Henry and Ibby Djimde transferred out of the program. Groce has brought excitement and fun back to the Illini program, and with a cast of newcomers set to begin their Illini careers, success is closer than one thinks.
     On the women's side, new coach Matt Bollant revamped a program that was run into the ground by former coach Jolette Law, and even though the season didn't culminate in a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, a 19-14 record and a deep run in the WNIT gave Illini Nation hope that the women's program could once become relevant sooner than later.  With a good recruiting class coming in, and a couple of transfers set to become eligible, that might not be far off.

     The spring sports season was one that can be summed up in one word:  successful.  The Illini baseball team led the charge by finishing the season 35-20 and making an appearance in the NCAA Tournament, where they were ousted by a good Georgia Tech team.  The Illini had several players that were drafted in the first year draft, and a few of those have already began their professional careers.  Coach Dan Hartleb seemed to have everything clicking for the Illini, and although he will have to reload next season, the future seems bright for the program.
     As far as the men's golf team goes, success is an understatement for what they did this season.  All Mike Small's team did was make a deep run in the tournament and finish national runner-up to eventual champion Alabama.  It is rather unheard of for a northern school to achieve the level of success that the Illini had, but Small proved that Illinois can be named among those schools that have the opportunity to play golf year round.  Also, with a stable of former players on the PGA Tour, that success doesn't appear to be scaling back anytime soon.
     Illinois track and field has been successful in the past several years, but there comes along an exceptional athlete only sporadically.  That athlete in the here and now is Ashley Spencer, who now has back-to-back 400M NCAA titles to her credit.  That Spencer is only a sophomore is incredible in itself, and she still has two more years at Illinois to earn some more hardware.  Like Andrew Riley on the men's side a year earlier, the Olympics beckon for Spencer in the not too near distant future.
     Coach Terri Sullivan's Illinois women's softball team may have not had the most successful season in the history of the program, but they made the end to the season one to remember.  The Illini finished the season 22-27, but won 10 out of their last 11 games to capture the #6 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.  Bigger and brighter things are on the horizon for Sullivan and the softball team, and building on this momentum certainly will not hurt.

     Before too awfully long, the annual Big Ten Football Media Days will be upon us in Chicago, which officially signals the start of the next sports season, and we do this all over again.  Until then, enjoy the summer!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013


     What a week it has been for Illini Nation!  First of all, the news last Monday regarding the naming rights to the renovation of the Assembly Hall (one of the final times I will ever type this name) led the discussion, and it was a lively one at that.  State Farm Insurance, which is headquartered in Bloomington, secured the naming rights to the building, and as a result, the arena will now be known as State Farm Center.  Yes, it is not flashy and it doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it is something that will need some getting used to.  For the entire 50 year existence of the building, it has been known as the Assembly Hall, and some will continue to call it that (I probably will as well, but better start the process of getting accustomed to writing State Farm Center on all correspondence as it comes to covering Fighting Illini athletics.  Few can argue that the renovations are not needed, and it was a constant debate whether or not to renovate, or build a new arena.  Since you would need to probably raze the old place if you build new, and that arena is on the list of historical places, that really wasn't an option.  State Farm bought the rights at a cost of $60 million over 30 years, which comes out to $2 million per year, a mere drop in the bucket for a company that size with an advertising budget much, much larger than that.  Any way you slice it, though, the next few years of renovations will be an exciting time as we watch the transformation of the State Farm Center evolve into a 21st Century arena.

     Since the Fighting Illini basketball season ended in March, head coach John Groce has seen his roster changed significantly, due mainly to transfers out of the program, as well as some players being brought in to the fold as well.  Gone from the team are Mike Shaw, Devin Langford and Ibby Djimde, all players who saw limited playing time in 2012-13 and wished to further their basketball careers in places that they could see a bit more playing time.  Shaw will transfer to Bradley where he will be coached by Geno Ford, who is the brother of current Illini assistant Dustin Ford.  Langford most likely will transfer closer to his home in Alabama, and it remains to be seen where in fact Djimde will end up.  With the departing seniors Brandon Paul, D. J. Richardson, Kevin Beradini, Tyler Griffey and Sam McLaurin, that left quite a few roster spots open on the team.  Rayvonte Rice, who sat out this past season after transferring in from Drake, will fill one of those vacancies, and the former Champaign Centennial standout will step right in and battle for one of the starting spots.  Groce has not been opposed to bringing in transfers to the Illinois program, and this season is no different.  Due to the recent rule allowing players that have completed their undergraduate degrees to pursue a graduate program at another university to gain a fifth year and play immediately, the Illini have brought in Jon Ekey from Illinois State in that capacity.  After all, that is how Illinois used Sam Maniscalco and Sam McLaurin the last couple of seasons.  Ekey is cut from the mold of Tyler Griffey, and will almost be like having Griffey around for another season.  Also transferring in to the program are Darius Paul, the younger brother of Brandon Paul, and Aaron Cosby, who comes in from Connecticut.  Both Paul and Cosby will have to sit out next season as a result of transfer rules, but Groce is still trying to get yet another transfer from Oregon named Ahmad Starks, who is trying to get a waiver from the NCAA to get closer to his home in Chicago to be with his ailing grandmother.  If Starks is allowed this waiver, he would be immediately eligible to play for the 2013-14 season.  Adding to the mix the five incoming freshmen, and you have a markedly different roster than the one that Groce had in his first season.  Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Austin Colbert, Malcolm Hill and Maverick Morgan will push the holdovers for playing time next season, and don't be surprised if some of them find their way into the starting lineup.  That being said, the only players with any semblance of playing experience next season will be Joseph Bertrand, Nnanna Egwu, Tracy Abrams and Mike LaTulip.  I neglected to include Myke Henry in that group, because reports have surfaced that Henry is considering transferring as well, since he wasn't at the season ending banquet last weekend.  Henry's absence casts a shadow of doubts on his future, and just as he was beginning to come into his own as a player.  Henry showed flashes of promise last season, and out of the bench players, cracked the rotation more often than others.  Still, there are some that question Groce's approach to this, but I say that he is apparently doing things the right way.  There are a couple of key recruits in the 2014 class that remain uncommitted, and Groce is still very much in the discussion for these players.  My guess is he is taking this approach to filling his roster in the event that he doesn't land these key players.  Only time will tell.

     Things are not as positive on the football front.  After a very sparsely attended spring game on a rainy Friday evening, Tim Beckman and his Illini gridders have wrapped up spring practice and will now concentrate on summer conditioning drills before the annual trip to Camp Rantoul.  The Illini are coming off a dismal 2-10 season in Beckman's first season at the helm of the Illini, and the prospects for improvement are not very promising.  What could prove to be the most exciting part of the upcoming season will undoubtedly take place inside the stadium, but may not be on the field itself.  A brand new, state of the art scoreboard, complete with ribbon boards on the sides, will be in place by the time of the first game on August 31st.  Losing a lot of players on the defensive side of the ball certainly doesn't help matters, but Beckman has overhauled the coaching staff and finally has some people in place that look like they will be here for a while. No matter what happens this upcoming season, expect Beckman to be around for at least another season, unless the unthinkable happens.

     Fighting Illini spring sports are beginning to wrap up, with both the baseball and softball teams enjoying various levels of success during the season.  The baseball team currently stands at 28-15 overall and 9-9 in the Big Ten, and will host Penn State for the final homestand of the season this weekend at Illinois Field.  Starting pitching has been the story for the Illini thus far, but lately, Justin Parr has stole the show with his current hitting streak of 31 games, the best in the nation.  The series with the Nittany Lions kicks off on Friday evening at 6:05 pm, followed by a pair of afternoon matinees on Saturday and Sunday.  Saturday's contest begins at 1:05 pm, with the series finale on Mother's Day scheduled for an 11:00 am first pitch.

     After a disastrous start to the season for the Illinois women's softball team, Coach Terri Sullivan has rallied her troops within the past month, winning 12 out of their last 13 games to end the regular season at 22-26 overall and 11-12 in conference play.  Those numbers have given the Illini the #6 seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament, which begins Thursday in Lincoln, Nebraska.  The Illini will face #11 Penn State at 4:30 pm central time on Thursday afternoon, and will need to run the table to win the conference tournament if they want to play in the postseason.  Given the recent success of the team, that feat is not out of the question.