What started as a series of question marks entering the 2012-13 Fighting Illini men's basketball season ended up so much better off. Nobody knew what to expect when John Groce took over the Illinois program, but they soon found out that it appeared to be on better terms than originally thought. The Illini stormed out to a 12-1 non-conference record before hitting a rough patch as the Big Ten season began. The Illini stumbled to a 2-7 start in conference play, and it figured to get even worse as #1 Indiana visited the Assembly Hall in February. But the Illini slayed the giant and subsequently turned their season around, as the Illini went 6-1 during that stretch to even out their Big Ten record at 8-8 entering the final week of the regular season. That didn't go as well as planned, as the Illini dropped the final two games, both road contests, to enter the Big Ten Tournament with a 21-11 overall record and an 8-10 mark in the Big Ten. Figuring that the Illini were already in the "Big Dance" due to key wins over Butler, Gonzaga, Ohio State and Indiana, the Illini set their sights on improving their seeding with a strong performance at the United Center. The Illini prevailed in game 1 against Minnesota 51-49, as Brandon Paul hit a jumper as time expired, leading the Illini to victory and a quarterfinal matchup against the top seeded Hoosiers, who were undoubtedly looking for revenge. Indiana exacted that revenge, downing the Illini 80-64, and bouncing them from the tourney. This year's Selection Sunday special was much more pleasant for Illini Nation, as they found their team heading back to the tourney bound for Austin, Texas. The first obstacle in the way was the Colorado Buffaloes, who seemed to be almost a mirror image of the Illini. After a stellar first half that saw the Illini take a 37-21 lead at the break, the polar opposite occurred in the second half. That second stanza saw the Illini blow the seemingly insurmountable lead and actually trail the Buffs with about 5 minutes to play. But, as has been the case for much of this season, Brandon Paul bailed the Illini out with 17 points and led them to victory and a third round matchup with the Miami Hurricanes. The Illini were not expected to beat Miami, but they fared much better than anyone thought, and actually had a chance to win the game late. Even though the Illini lost 63-59, some positive thoughts resonated in the defeat. Normally, when a team loses in the tourney, ending their season, questions are raised and feelings of emptiness are sometimes experienced. With this loss, those feelings were not there. The Illini played one of their better games, but could not match the physical nature of the Hurricanes. The Illini finished the season at 23-13, which can be considered a success. However, the Illini will be losing four players that helped them to this success. Paul, D. J. Richardson, Tyler Griffey, and Sam McLaurin all will be gone next year, and it was announced on Friday that fellow Illini players Devin Langford, Mike Shaw, and Ibby Djimde will be leaving the program and have been granted their transfer releases. Yes, this creates a void in the numbers of the team, with just a handful of players returning for next season. However, this could also mean that Groce is confident that the future recruiting classes may be in fact better than first thought, and that he is clearing the way for such players to enter the program in the next couple of years. It's evident that Langford, Shaw and Djimde did not play a whole lot this past season, and that could be contributed to either not being talented enough to play at the Big Ten level to simply not fitting the system that Groce is trying to install in Champaign. Still, I wish those guys well, and hope they latch on somewhere that they can see more playing time. After all, they deserve it.
Going into the season, the women's basketball program had undergone some turmoil during the tenure of then coach, Jolette Law. Enter new coach Matt Bollant, who had endured ultimate success at Wisconsin-Green Bay to try and turn the program around, The results were nothing less than positive, as the Illini ended up with a 19-14 record, and a deep run into the WNIT. Even though the season didn't culminate with a return trip to the NCAA Tournament, the season could be considered a success, because the win total almost equaled that of the past two seasons combined. Bollant had a couple of players that he inherited that were pretty good, in Amber Moore and Karisma Penn, who set numerous team records during their tenure at Illinois. Moore broke the career record for three-pointers attempted (599), and season records for three-pointers made (86) and attempted (236). Moore also ranked 34th nationally in three-pointers made per game (2.61). Penn broke career records for blocked shots (270) and attempted free throws (747), while eclipsing season records in offensive rebounds (123), free throws made (179) and attempted (262). Penn also ranked nationally in several categories, including points (19.2 - 28th), steals (2.91 - 25th), blocked shots (2.18 - 29th), and field goal percentage (50.6 - 35th). Alexis Smith also ranked nationally in assists per game at 5.1. The future definitely looks bright for Bollant and the women's program, and a return to the NCAA women's tournament is something that is certain to happen sooner than later.
The Fighting Illini spring sports are underway, with both the men's baseball and women's softball teams into the depth of their seasons. Regarding the baseball team, Dan Hartleb's team is off to an 18-7 start, and have had decent weather thus far in the season, making sure that not many of their games were postponed. The Illini ventured down to Busch Stadium in St. Louis on Tuesday to battle Missouri in the diamond version of the Border War. The Illini came out on top by a 6-2 score, as Hartleb employed six pitchers, scattering just seven hits and allowing just 1 run. The Illini will travel to Bloomington, Indiana this weekend for a conference series with the Indiana Hoosiers. They will play three single games, beginning with a contest under the lights Friday evening starting at 5:05 CT. Saturday's game will begin at 1:05 CT, with the series finale on Sunday slated for a 12:05 CT first pitch.
Coach Terri Sullivan's Illini softball team have not fared as well, stumbling out of the gate to an 11-17 overall record, with just a 1-5 record in Big Ten play. The Illini will host Indiana State on Wednesday evening at Eichelberger Field at 6:00 PM CT, before traveling up to Evanston this weekend for a conference series with the Northwestern Wildcats, beginning with a 4:00 PM CT first pitch on Friday.