Haven't we seen this story play out before? The Illini get out to a fast start to a season, to only see it crumble right before their eyes. Illini fans were glad to see Bruce Weber leave after last season, and agreed that it was time for him to move on. However, the players that he recruited to Illinois stayed behind to play for new Illini bench boss John Groce. Illini Nation was pleasantly surprised in the early part of the 2012-13 campaign, as the Illini stormed out of the gate to a 12-0 record, and put wins over top 15 opponents Butler, Gonzaga and Ohio State in their back pocket. Those teams are still among the nation's elite teams, but the Fighting Illini are nowhere to be found in the rankings, not even receiving votes at this time. Coincidence? Groce, as has been previously mentioned here, wanted to downplay the fact that his team was exhibiting a lack of confidence and was thinking about their epic collapse last season, and that the direction that they were heading was eerily too familiar with what happened a year ago. True, the schedule has been brutal, what with the Big Ten being as strong as it has been in several years. But that doesn't take into account that losing at home to Northwestern and on the road at Purdue, two games that should have pointed to wins. To be an elite team in the Big Ten, you need to hold serve on your home court and try to steal one or two on the road, both of which this year's version of the Illini have been unable to do. Granted, the last couple of games for the Illini have been tough, losing to Michigan at home and Michigan State on the road, but those were expected to be losses. Michigan has by far the best team in the conference in many years, and they are loaded at every position. Then there is Michigan State, who year in and year out, remains one of the top teams in the Big Ten, no matter how much they happen to reload. The Breslin Center in East Lansing is one of the tougher venues to play in, ans the Illini have not won up there since the 2006 season. The Illini came out looking much better than they had in previous games, scoring the first 8 points of the game to take control of the game for the entire first half, taking a 37-27 lead into the halftime locker room. Whatever adjustment Michigan State coach Tom Izzo made at the half must have worked, because the Spartans stormed out of the gate in the second half, scoring the first 14 points of the half to totally reverse the course of the game and take a lead that they would never relinquish. Once one of the best shooting teams in the nation from beyond the arc earlier in the season, the Illini have had trouble finding their range, and it has shown, especially in the win column. Senior Tyler Griffey is a distinct example of this futility, having gone from hitting long range jumpers on a regular basis to barely drawing iron on shots lately. Griffey has lost confidence enough that he is even passing on shots that normally would go in. Groce has said that the shooting woes have played a direct effect on their recent slide, noting that the team probably made more fundamental mistakes earlier in the season. However, their hot shooting masked that deficiency, and now the lack of hitting shots is beginning to take its toll. We knew this last season, but this team is soft and it really shows when going up against strong, physical teams such as Michigan State, and soon to be Indiana. The Illni , currently 15-7 overall and 2-6 in conference play, are running out of time this season, and will need a strong finish to the season to make the NCAA Tournament. Sure, they have the resume building wins to make a strong case, but bad losses (see at Purdue and home to Northwestern), have made that questionable. It now makes every win that much more important, and they can get back on the right track on Sunday when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to the Assembly Hall (2:30 pm CT, BTN). The Badgers thoroughly embarrassed the Illini in their first meeting of the season, beating the Illini 74-51 at the Kohl Center in Madison last month. This Wisconsin team is not the most physical that coach Bo Ryan has had in his time in Madison, but, like Izzo, he always manages to get everything out of the players that he brings in. This is a winnable game for the Illini, but then again, so was Northwestern and at Purdue. So, at this point, it remains to be seen what will play out. It all depends on which team shows up, and right now, my guess is as good as yours. I have no idea.
I know I shouldn't say this, but who would have thought that the team that we would be talking about with the best chance of getting into the NCAA Tournament would be the Illini women? This statement is fact that coach Matt Bollant is doing wonders with the Illini, having now knocked off 3 top 25 teams to be in contention in the Big Ten. The Illini, now 12-8 overall and in a 5 way tie for third place in the Big Ten at 5-3, are playing some of the best basketball of all the teams in the league, and that can be attributed to the return of Adrienne GodBold, who was academically ineligible for the first semester. Karisma Penn once again is leading the team, and in their latest triumph, a 74-62 win over #24 Iowa on Thursday night at the Assembly Hall, Penn led a balanced attack for the Illini with 18 points. GodBold and Amber Moore each scored 17 points, while Ivory Crawford added 14 points. This is just the type of output that Bollant was looking for, and he was quoted this past week by saying that "I expected to get this team back to prominence in the Big Ten and visions of the NCAA Tournament, or else I never would have left Green Bay". Considering that the Illini won 11 games last season and have already eclipsed that mark this year, he is well on his way to reversing fortunes of this program. The Illini will look to continue their success on the road in the Big Ten this season, where they haven't lost, when they travel to Madison to battle Wisconsin on Sunday (2:00 pm CT, No TV). I like the direction that this program is headed.
The #6 Fighting Illini wrestling team is off to a good start on the season, despite losing one of their top grapplers, B. J. Futrell to an injury. The Illini dominated Indiana by a score of 30-9 to set up a very important weekend for Coach Jim Heffernan and his squad. On Friday night, they travel to Oak Grove H.S. in Oak Grove, Ohio to battle the #5 Ohio State Buckeyes, before returning home on Sunday to battle #1 Penn State. Hopefully, with the absence of Futrell, the Illini can rely on some of the other veterans to step up and assume the leadership role that Futrell exhibited and retain their stature as one of the elite teams in the nation.