It's funny how one shot can change the fortunes of a basketball team. Rewind with me to the night of February 7th, when the #1 Indiana Hoosiers visited the Assembly Hall to take on the Fighting Illini. The Illini were in the midst of a three game losing streak, and had dropped six out of their last seven games, and came into the game with the Hoosiers at 15-8 overall, but just 2-7 in the Big Ten. All signs pointed to yet another loss, and what most certainly would be another season without an NCAA Tournament appearance. But lo and behold, Tyler Griffey saved the Illini that night by breaking away from his defender, Cody Zeller, and shuffled toward the basket to give the Illini a stunning 74-72 win over Indiana, and began a total turnaround of the season that finds them now on a four game winning streak at 19-8 overall and 6-7 in the Big Ten. The Illini are in a stretch of games now that they should win, and they are making the best of the situation at hand by winning these games by a sizable margin. The latest win, a 69-41 rout at Northwestern this past Sunday evening at Evanston, avenged an earlier defeat to the Wildcats, a then resume damaging 68-54 loss back in January at the Assembly Hall. Since the Indiana win, the Illini seem to once have the confidence that they exhibited in the pre-conference part of the schedule, in which they won the Maui Invitational and also went to Gonzaga and came away with a win, a feat that very few teams can claim. Once again, it appears that the Illini are in position to return to the NCAA Tournament, barring a horrifying collapse that would mirror last season. Yes, as I have said before, this is the same group of players that Bruce Weber recruited and coached, and at times, they still look like that group that tanked down the stretch last season. The Illini have another home game that should be winnable on Thursday evening against Penn State (7:15 pm, BTN), but we all know what happens when the Nittany Lions play in Champaign. Penn State has had one of those forgettable seasons, coming into the game with the Illini at 8-17 overall and winless in the Big Ten at 0-13. But, one does not have to think back very far to realize that Penn State always seems to play Illinois tough. However, this year's Nittany Lion team is missing a key piece. Tim Frazier, who came into the season as one of the all-Big Ten preseason players of the year is out for the season with an injury. Frazier only played in four games this season, and averaged just over 16 points per game for Penn State before he was hurt. So, coach Patrick Chambers is definitely relying on guards Jermaine Marshall and D. J. Newbill to step up in Frazier's absence. Whatever the case may be, the Illini cannot let their guard down and need to take care of business at home. Who knows, we might be talking about what kind of seed the Illini will get in the NCAA Tourney, not just if they will make it this season.
Speaking of remarkable turnarounds, the job that Illini women's coach Matt Bollant has done this season is short of amazing. Bollant came from Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he dominated the Horizon League. It was a foregone conclusion that Bollant would come to Illinois and reverse the losing course that former coach Jolette Law brought with her to Champaign. So far this season, the Illini are 15-9 overall and 8-4 in the Big Ten, and have surpassed their win total for last season. Illinois, winners of six out of their last eight games, had an entire week off between their last set of games, and defeated Wisconsin 60-53 on Monday night at the Assembly Hall to pull into a three-way tie for third place in the Big Ten standings. Karisma Penn, who had another solid game for the Illinois, scored 26 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to record her 12th double-double of the season. Penn has largely been the go-to person this season, but other players, such as Adrienne GodBold and Amber Moore have complemented Penn and are putting Illinois back into the NCAA Tournament picture for the first time in over a decade. The Illini have a very tough road test on Wednesday evening when they travel to Penn State to battle the Nittany Lions (6:00 pm CT, No TV). Penn State is in command of the Big Ten right now at 21-3 overall and 11-1 in conference play. Expect the rest of the country to stand up and take notice if the Illini can pull this one off.
Things seem to be in a state of disarray for Tim Beckman and the Illini football team as they prepare to begin spring workouts in a couple of weeks. The coaching staff is undergoing a bit of an overhaul, as more and more of the coaches that came in with Beckman are beginning to jump ship and look elsewhere for jobs. The latest to flee is cornerbacks coach Steve Clinkscale, who apparently is headed to coach defensive backs at Cincinnati. Already gone are Chris Beatty (fired), Keith Gilmore (left for North Carolina), Luke Butkus (left for Florida International, and then the Jacksonville Jaguars a week later), and Billy Gonzales (going somewhere). Greg Colby, who both coached and played at Illinois, returns to coach the defensive line. Colby, a native of Danville, returns to his roots, and will attempt to continue what Gilmore started. Maybe the 2-10 season had a little too much to do with all of the defections, or they saw some kind of an underlying factor with Beckman that forced them to look elsewhere for job security. In any event, the coaching staff will look significantly different next season. Let's hope that it brings some wins with them, or else we might be having this conversation in a year or so with the head coaching position.