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, ESPN3.com). 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, ESPN3.com), 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.