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.