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.