It's funny what a win can do to the confidence of a basketball team. Losing 5 of their last 6 games, including their last 3 games, the Fighting Illini traveled to Lincoln, Nebraska this past Tuesday night to get back on the winning track, at least for the time being. D. J. Richardson regained his shooting touch, scoring a career high 30 points to help lead the Illini to a much needed lopsided victory. It seems forever and a day ago since the Illini were thoroughly embarrassed in Lincoln last season, and if that wasn't the beginning of the end for Bruce Weber and the 2011-12 Illini team, then it led to that. This version of the Illini have proved that they can play with the best of the best, and also lose to the not so fortunate. Which puts the game on Sunday into the category of not knowing what will happen. The Illini will battle #2 Michigan on Sunday (5:00 pm, CT, BTN), and even though the Wolverines come in as perhaps the cream of the crop in the Big Ten, the Illini have proven before that they can step up in the big games (see Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State). Michigan has a lot to play for as well, because if they can get past the Illini, they will become the nation's #1 team when the new poll is released on Monday. But first things first, they have to come into Champaign and get a win. The Illini's next 5 games proves to be a brutal stretch, as they will face 4 teams that are in the top 25 and a fifth, Wisconsin, who may enter the poll after knocking off #12 Minnesota on Saturday. Everyone knew that the Big Ten would be dog-eat-dog this season, and it is proving to be just that. Coach John Groce doesn't want to look past Michigan in this next stretch of games, but that doesn't mean that the members of the media (which I am among the throngs) can't. A game at Michigan State (ranked #13) looms next for the Illini on Thursday night, followed by a return to the Assembly Hall a week from Sunday to battle Wisconsin, the first team that the Illini will see for the second time this season. After that, Indiana (ranked #7) comes to Champaign, and then the Illini will travel to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers (ranked #12 before losing to Wisconsin) the Sunday after. If that doesn't speak volumes over a key few games that might make or break their season, then I don't know what does. After all, everyone knew that this wouldn't be easy, and the Illini have proven that they can beat anyone on any given night.
The Fighting Illini women's basketball team has found success on the road in the Big 10 this season pretty satisfying. However, playing at home hasn't been so easy for Matt Bollant's squad. Case in point: The Illini defeated Nebraska in Lincoln 62-52 to win their third straight away from the Assembly Hall, but in coming back to play in front of the home fans against Northwestern, lost 62-58 to drop their third consecutive home game. The Illini (10-8 overall, 3-3 in the Big Ten) hope to continue their success on the road on Monday evening when they travel to Minnesota to battle the Golden Gophers (13-6 overall, 2-3 in the Big Ten). So far Bollant has not disappointed in getting this team to play well for him, and it will be even more interesting to see what he can do when he gets his own players here.
The coaching carousel for the football team continued last week when Jim Bridge was hired from North Carolina State to take over the offensive line, a position that was vacated when Luke Butkus left to join former boss Ron Turner, who was hired as head coach at Florida International. Butkus, who claimed that Illinois was his dream job for coaching, evidently woke up and realized that the grass may be greener elsewhere. More power to him, and I wish him the best of luck. Luke is a good guy and will succeed wherever he goes. Word also came down on Saturday that defensive line coach Keith Gilmore is leaving Illinois to be reunited with his former coach Vic Koenning at North Carolina. That will once again leave another position to fill on the staff, one that Coach Tim Beckman will no doubt fill pretty quickly. With national letter of intent signing day approaching on February 6th, they will need to make a move and fast. Stay tuned.