Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.

Two Steps Forward.......Three Steps Back.
The rebuild of the Illinois football program continues as they drop a tough 34-31 loss in overtime to Purdue.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Looking On The Bright Side

     If you are an Illinois sports fan, this past weekend had several ups and downs for you to choose from.  From the Cliff Alexander debacle to Illinois football, Illini volleyball making a resurgence to women's soccer staying alive in the NCAA tournament, there was a little bit of everything.  I would be remiss if I omitted the Illini women's basketball team, which almost set a school record for points in a game, but came up just short.  A lot to cover, so I'll get right to it.

     Unless you've been living under a rock for the past few weeks, you have undoubtedly heard about the recruiting battle for one of the best high school players to come out of Illinois, Cliff Alexander of Chicago Curie High School.  Alexander had limited his final four choices to Illinois, Kansas, Memphis and DePaul, and decision day was last Friday, when he announced on national television (ESPNU).  Well, to make a long story short, he chose Kansas, but it was the way that he did it that angered Illini Nation.  Alexander went for the Illinois hat, picked it up, and then grabbed the Kansas hat, which signaled his choice.  A long battle is over, and for what it's worth, all the better because of it.  To add insult to injury, John Groce found out that one of the players that had already made a verbal commitment to the Illini backed out of that promise, and decided to stay home and play for Louisville, his hometown.  This player, Quentin Snider, originally had planned to go to Louisville, but when coach Rick Pitino was courting a player by the name of JaQuan Lyle, Snider backed off and Groce game in.  Well, Lyle eventually didn't go to Louisville, and that opened up a chance for Snider to keep his original choice, which was to the Cardinals.  Yes, it wasn't a good day on the recruiting front, and John Groce came out firing on all cylinders after the football game, citing an article written by Steve Greenberg of the Chicago Sun-Times.  The article itself wasn't the issue, but the headline that was captioned about it.  It made it sound as if Greenberg was bashing the Illini, but after all, he is paid to write what he wants, and he did just that.  Still, it got Groce going, and he is coming out even more focused on the recruiting futures.  What seems to be lost in all of this is the fact that Groce did sign 2 players for the 2014 class, Michael Finke from Champaign, and LeRon Black from Memphis, Tennessee.  Despite not getting Alexander and Snider, the Illini will be fine, and should be even better next season when some of these players that are currently sitting out from transferring in can suit up and get on the court.

     Speaking of the basketball team, they ran their record on the 2013-14 season to 4-0 last Sunday afternoon by defeating in-state rival Bradley 81-55 at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  Senior transfer Jon Ekey had his best game as an Illini thus far, scoring 19 points, including 5-7 from beyond the arc.  Rayvonte Rice scored 13 points, while Tracy Abrams added 12 for the Illini, who played their best game of the young season against the Braves.  The Illini will get back into action on Friday night when they welcome the Chicago State Cougars to the State Farm Center (8:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini will see their first road action next Tuesday night when they travel to Las Vegas to take on the Runnin' Rebels of UNLV (9:45 pm CT, CBS Sports Network).

     The Fighting Illini women's basketball team has been busy this past week, and are beginning to see the success on the court as a result.  Two wins last week, including a 112-28 dismantling of Alcorn State has propelled Matt Bollant's squad to a 3-1 start.  In the lopsided win over Alcorn State, the Illini set a record for margin of victory at home, and just missed setting a record of total points scored, which was 113.  Still, the Illini dominated the game in every facet, and placed seven players in double figures, led by Amber Moore, who had 25 points.  Sarah Hartwell added 16 points to pace the Illini, and every player on the roster played at least 12 minutes in the game.  The way the score looked, it appeared that the Illini ran up the score, but that wasn't the case.  Bollant was pleased with the result, and the sad part is that the Illini could have had more than they ended up.  The Illini return to the court on Thursday evening when they welcome the Salukis of Southern Illinois to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     A few weeks ago, the Fighting Illini women's volleyball team was in serious jeopardy of making the NCAA tournament, an event that they will be hosting in one of the upcoming regionals.  If there is one point in the season that can be viewed as the turnaround, you would look at the Michigan match, which found the Illini trailing 2-0 before making a miraculous comeback to defeat the Wolverines.  Last weekend, the Illini won both their matches at home, sweeping both Indiana and #17 Purdue to improve their record to 14-12 overall and 10-6 in the conference.  In order to qualify for the NCAA tournament, the Illini need to finish the regular season with a .500 record.  This weekend will be their last road trip of the season, as they travel to Ohio State on Friday night (6:00 pm CT), then face the #2 team in the nation, Penn State, on Saturday night.  (6:30 pm CT).  Whereas the postseason looked bleak a few weeks ago, it now has cleared up immensely, but there is still much work to be done.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team began NCAA tournament play last weekend at Washington State, and came away with a victory due to penalty kicks 0-0 in 2 OT.  Freshman goalkeeper Claire Wheatley notched 11 saves during regulation and two more in the overtime period, and Vanessa DiBernardo kicked the game winner for the Illini, who advance to the next round of the tournament and will face #7 Portland on Friday afternoon in Lincoln, Nebraska (11:00 am CT).  The Pilots are 17-2-1 overall, and defeated Seattle 2-0 in their opening round match last weekend.  The Illini are 10-8-3 overall, and will need another good effort by their team in order to continue playing on.

     Now, on to football.  It was pretty much evident that the Illini would not get past the #3 Ohio State Buckeyes last Saturday at Memorial Stadium, but they held tough with the Buckeyes, ending up losing 60-35.  What is even worse about this is the show of fans in the stands.  Take one look at the student section in the north end zone, and it is apparent that there is not much excitement for this program.  The Block-I didn't even have enough students to complete simple card stunts during halftime, and the stands took on a scarlet and grey look, as many, many fans made the trip from Columbus and points elsewhere.  At times, it even appeared that there were more Ohio State fans than Illinois fans in the stands, especially toward the end of the game.  This is what we have come to expect from a program that has now lost 20 straight Big Ten games, and the last two games of the season could go a long way to determine if Tim Beckman stays around for next season.  The Illini travel to West Lafayette on Saturday morning to face the Purdue Boilermakers (11:00 am CT, BTN), a game that the Illini are actually favored to win.  The Illini come into the game with Purdue at 3-7 overall and winless in conference play at 0-6, and a bowl trip has officially been eliminated.  The Boilermakers are even worse than Illinois, if you can believe it, at 1-9 overall and 0-6 as well in Big Ten play.  There has been little to be excited about for the Illini football team this season, and last Saturday's game may have exposed some additional issues, as Beckman was seen verbally arguing with offensive coordinator Bill Cubit following a safety by the Buckeyes.  It has been a comedy of errors during this losing streak, and even though the Illini have won 3 games this season, one more than last season, progress is hard to see.  Yes, the offense is much better, but the defense is as porous as ever.  This is why a victory over Purdue is a must, and Beckman's job may very well depend on it.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Oh, the possibilities!

     Normally, I start out each week's blog entry with the football recap.  Since football is not going so well this season, I will deviate from the norm and begin this week with Fighting Illini basketball.

     John Groce has his young Illini team off to a 3-0 start, but it certainly hasn't been easy.  Not that anyone thought that it would be, either.  Groce, who welcomed nine new players to his roster this season, knew that there would some adversity to go through with such a young team, and at times, it has been more than evident  already in the 2013-14 season.  The latest outcome was a 64-52 win over the Valparaiso Crusaders on Wednesday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign, a game in which the Illini led by double digits, only to see the Crusaders storm back and make it a game late.  Rayvonte Rice once again led the way for the Illini, scoring a game high 18 points, while senior transfer Jon Ekey was chairman of the boards, grabbing 15 rebounds and scoring 6 points.  Valparaiso, who had a familiar face on the bench, was a big team, and gave the Illini a small taste of what it will be like when they face a team that is taller than they are.  The familiar face on the Valpo bench was none other than Roger Powell Jr., who was a major part of the 2004-05 national runner-up team that lost to North Carolina in the Final Four.  Powell, who was all business for the Crusaders, received a nice ovation when he was announced to the crowd.  The Rev, as he is better known as, was always one of my favorite players from that team, and was often overshadowed by Dee Brown and Deron Williams, the major stars of the team.  However, the run to the Final Four that year would have not been possible without the services of Powell, so it was good to see that he still is revered by Illini Nation.

     The Fighting Illini continue action this weekend, when they welcome the Bradley Braves to the State Farm Center on Sunday afternoon (5:00 pm CT, no TV).  Bradley, who is coached by Geno Ford, is the brother of current Illini assistant coach Dustin Ford, so that should be rather interesting from the sidelines on Sunday.  The Braves are also 3-0 on the season, and will host Chicago State on Friday night before making the trek down I-74 to the State Farm Center.  Bradley, who plays in the Missouri Valley Conference, will see a familiar face on the Illini roster in Ekey, who played at Illinois State for the past four years.  The Braves also have a former Illini player on their roster in Mike Shaw, although Shaw is sitting out this season due to transfer rules.

     The Cliff watch is still on, and the decision will be made tomorrow by one of the most heralded recruits in the class of 2014.  Alexander, who will make his decision on Friday at about 3:15 pm on ESPNU, is culminating a recruiting courtship that seems to have lasted for months.  The decision has Illini Nation on high alert, and it seems that this is all that people have talked about for the past couple of weeks.  To further complicate matters, originally Cliff was supposed to be the only one to announce his college choice on the airwaves Friday.  However, two other highly sought after recruits, Jhalil Okafor and Tyus Jones, are also making their decisions at around the same time.  Okafor and Jones have long been rumored to be a package deal for one lucky school, and the leading contenders for their services are Kansas and Duke.  As far as Alexander goes, he has narrowed his final choices to Kansas, Illinois, DePaul and Memphis.  I, for one, will be happy when all of this is over, but it has been a fun ride.

     Now for the football team.  It will be two teams going in opposite directions on Saturday morning when the Fighting Illini welcome the Ohio State Buckeyes to Memorial Stadium in Champaign (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  The Illini are in the midst of a 19 game conference losing streak that dates back to the 2011 season, while the Buckeyes are riding the wave of a 21 game win streak under Urban Meyer.  Ohio State, who was ineligible for postseason play last season, went undefeated, and are 9-0 this season, which is good enough for a #3 national ranking.  Stranger things have happened, but this would be an absolute aberration if the Illini were to somehow break the losing streak against the Buckeyes.  That being said, the losing streak will reach 20 games, which is a number that nobody wants to see.  The Illini lost a shootout to Indiana last Saturday 52-35 in Bloomington, as the Illini defense once again was very porous.  It didn't help that the Indiana offense is high-powered, and at times, showed their force.  Nobody is giving the Illini a chance in this one, and for good reason, given the way the season has gone.  Even Vegas is along for the ride, as they have pegged the Buckeyes as 33 point favorites.

     Matt Bollant's second women's basketball squad has quite a few new faces as well, and after a loss at Bradley to open the season, the Illini have won two straight at the State Farm Center to push their overall record to 2-1.  The Illini defeated Valparaiso 87-59 on Tuesday night, then hit the 90 point mark once again on Thursday evening to defeat Mississippi Valley State 93-70.  It is already apparent that Bollant's team will have no problem scoring points, as evidenced by the high point totals.  In the win over Mississippi Valley State, Amber Moore had a monster game, scoring 27 points and notching a double-double with 19 rebounds.  Freshman Jacqui Grant also had a good night, scoring 22 points and snaring 7 boards.  The Illini will be in action on Sunday afternoon before the men's game, when they welcome Alcorn State to the 'Farm.  Game time is at 1:00 pm.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team received a surprise on Monday, when they were selected to play in the NCAA Tournament.  Coach Janet Rayfield wasn't sure that they would be in the field, but when some teams that they needed to win did, it opened up a spot for them.  The Illini, who finished the regular season 10-8-2 overall, will travel to Pullman, Washington to battle the Washington State Cougars on Saturday afternoon at 3:00 pm CT.  Washington State comes into the contest at 14-3-3 overall, and is ranked nationally at #21 heading into the postseason.

     Kevin Hambly's Fighting Illini women's volleyball team continues to make the push toward the postseason, and will conclude a four match home stand this weekend when they welcome Purdue and Indiana to Huff Hall.  The Illini defeated #17 Michigan and #13 Michigan State last weekend to push their overall record back to the .500 mark at 12-12, while improving their conference record to 8-6.  The Illini will entertain Indiana on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), and then welcome the #18 ranked Boilermakers on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT).  In order for the Illini to qualify for the postseason and get a chance to play on the State Farm Center floor in the NCAA Regional, they must finish the regular season at .500 or better.  The wins last weekend will go a long way toward that goal, but they still have a lot of work to do.


Thursday, November 7, 2013

Still Searching

     That one was close.  Really close.

     But, close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades, and what it amounts to is the Fighting Illni football team's conference losing streak was extended to 18 games.  The Illini probably played their most complete game in quite some time, but came out on the short end in a 24-17 overtime defeat to the Penn State Nittany Lions last Saturday in State College, Pennsylvania.  The Nittany Lions jumped out to a 14-0 lead, and the vibe was one of 'here we go again'.  But, unlike Illini games of recent memory, this team didn't quit, and actually took a late lead.  But, it seems like bad luck likes to follow this team, and the game eventually went into overtime and, well, you know the rest of the story.  An emotional Tim Beckman was quoted after the game, saying "we're going to get that Big Ten win, and we're going to get it this year".  This hasn't been easy for Beckman since arriving at Illinois, and all of the coaching changes have not helped matters either.  Bringing in Bill Cubit to lead the offense has been a breath of fresh air, and has given the offense some life, but the defense is still suspect, and coordinator Tim Banks may very well bear the brunt of it when the season ends.

     Now begins the final stretch run of the 2013 season, and the chance to salvage the season, and possibly even still become bowl eligible.  Crazy as that sounds, it is still a possibility if the Illini can muster 3 wins out of the final 4 games.  The quest begins on Saturday afternoon when the Illini travel to Bloomington, Indiana to face an Indiana Hoosiers (2:30 pm CT, BTN)  team that is one of the more prolific offenses in the conference, but also has one of the worst defenses in the league as well.  The Hoosiers have been scoring points at will this season, but they also have been allowing a lot of points from opposing offenses as well. The Illini come into the game with the Hoosiers at 3-5 overall and 0-4 in the conference, while Indiana enters the matchup with an identical 3-5 record, but 1-3 in Big Ten play.  Given those parameters, this could very well could turn out to be a high scoring affair, with the team that has the ball last coming out on top.  Could this be the game that the Illini break the long conference losing streak?  We'll just have to wait and see.

     John Groce and the Fighting Illini men's basketball team is set to open the 2013-14 season on Friday evening, when they welcome the Alabama State Hornets to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT,  The Illini, who won both of their exhibition games, are poised to begin the season with a roster that is markedly different than last year, namely the mere fact that there are nine new faces.  A couple of those newcomers, Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn, started the final exhibition tune up last Sunday, and did progressively well.  Tracy Abrams sat out that game with a strained hamstring, and Groce didn't want to take any chances.  The non-conference schedule isn't that strong early on,. which should give Groce a chance to see what his young team is all about.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini will face Jacksonville State (5:00 pm CT,, giving this weekend a feel of an NCAA Tournament weekend.

     Earlier this week, Groce secured his first commitment for the class of 2015 when D. J. Williams of Chicago Simeon made his college choice to play for Illinois.  Simeon players normally don't commit before their senior season, so this decision by Williams was a pleasant surprise.  The Cliff Alexander announcement will take place next week, and apparently it is between Illinois and Kansas to land the big man from Chicago Curie.  Groce certainly has made a splash in the recruiting circles, and the addition of Alexander would be an added bonus.

     Coach Matt Bollant and the women's basketball team also begins their season on Friday, although they start the season on the road at Bradley (11:00 am CT, No TV).  The Illini defeated Cardinal Strich 78-49 in their lone exhibition game of the pre-season, as Taylor Tuck led a balanced scoring attack with 14 points.  Like the men's squad, the women have a lot of new players this season, so youth will be a factor for Bollant's team as well.

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team has their backs against the wall, and so far, are making the best of it.  The Illini won a huge match on the road last weekend at Iowa 3-0, and then on Wednesday evening, came home too Huff Hall to defeat #17 Michigan in a thrilling, come from behind win,  The Illini will welcome #13 Michigan State to Champaign on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV), and bring a 11-12 overall record and 7-8 conference mark into the contest.

     The Illini women's soccer team did what it could to qualify for the Big Ten Soccer Tournament, and since Champaign is hosting the tourney this year, that made it even sweeter.  Due to inclement weather this week, the tournament was moved from the soccer complex to the Campus Recreation turf fields to reduce wear and tear on the main field.  The Illini came into the tourney as the #5 seed, and took on #4 Indiana in their quarterfinal matchup.  The Illini came up short, losing to the Hoosiers 5-3 and therefore, bowing out of the tournament.  The Illini, who are 10-8-2 overall, will have to wait until Monday to find out if they will be playing on in the NCAA Tournament.  Coach Janet Rayfield thinks they have a good chance of making that happen.