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.

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