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.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Happy Holidays

     The holidays are a time for reflecting on things, and what a good excuse to reflect on the state of the various Illinois sports teams.  With mens' and womens' basketball in full force right now, we'll start there.

     John Groce has his squad at 9-2 on the season, but they could very easily be 10-1 with the tough loss in Atlanta to Georgia Tech.  The Illini dropped another close game last Saturday evening in Portland, Oregon to the Oregon Ducks, and with final exams wrapping up on the campus, have been idle since that game.  The Illini head down to St. Louis on Saturday at the Scottrade Center for the annual Braggin' Rights game against the Tigers of Missouri (4:30 pm CT, ESPN2).  The Tigers are 10-0 on the season, and like the Illini, have a lot of new players on the roster.  This is one of the more intriguing matchups all season, due to the nature of the game.  It is literally 50/50 split between Illinois and Missouri fans, and the fact that they meet in the Gateway City makes it even better.  Plus, the atmosphere is incredible as well.  If you haven't been before, I strongly suggest you try and attend one of these, because you will not be disappointed.

     Matt Bollant also has his team playing through the holidays, although not quite as successful as their counterparts on the mens' side.  The Illini are currently 6-5 on the season, and recently snapped a 3 game losing streak with a come from behind 71-70 win over Seton Hall.  The Illini haven't played in 12 days, so the time off has been a good thing for both Bollant and the players.  The Illini return to action on Saturday afternoon when they welcome Tennessee-Martin to the State Farm Center (2:00 pm CT, No TV).

     The Fighting Illini volleyball team saw their season come to an end last weekend in the Regional Semifinals at the State Farm Center in Champaign, as they were defeated by Big Ten rival Purdue 3-0.  The Illini finish the season 18-15 overall, and even though they didn't reach their goal of making the Final Four, the latter part of the season was one where they played much better and put themselves in position to play at home in not only the first and second rounds, but the Regional as well.  That was worth all they went through in itself.

     Even though the football season is over for the Fighting Illini, the team is still making news, and in a good way.  Junior College and early enrollment signing day was this past Wednesday, and head coach Tim Beckman is addressing some needs with some players with quite a bit of experience.  Among them are a couple of twins, Tyrin and Tyree Stone-Davis, who will give depth at a couple of positions.  Mike Dudek, a wide receiver from Neuqua Valley HS in Naperville, will hope to fill the void left by Steve Hull and Ryan Lankford, both whom won't be back next year.  All told, 9 players will join the Illini family in January.  A couple other players have verbally committed to the Illini, and could possibly sign in February when national letter of intent (NLI) day arrives.  Also, offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was signed to an extension through 2015, meaning he will lead that unit when Wes Lunt assumes the quarterbacking duties with the departure of Nathan Scheelhasse.

That's a wrap on 2013.  Happy Holidays everyone!

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Learning Curve

     Mercifully, the football season ended for the Fighting Illini last Saturday, as they were defeated 37-34 by the Northwestern Wildcats at a very empty Memorial Stadium in  Champaign.  The Illini, under second year coach Tim Beckman, finished the season at 4-8 overall, but just 1-7 in Big Ten play.  Granted, the season wasn't viewed as a success by many standards, but the offense did improve markedly under new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit.  As a result, quarterback Nathan Scheelhaase flourished in his final season, leading a unit that put up a good amount of points.  The defense, on the other hand, was another story entirely.   One of the worst units in the country in terms of allowed offensive yards, coordinator Tim Banks just couldn't get things turned around on his side of the ball.  The news came out earlier in the week that Beckman will return for his third season next year, and further information was relayed that hints there won't be any changes to the coaching staff in the off-season.  On the surface, this may anger many Illini fans that Banks is possibly being retained, but athletic director Mike Thomas is giving Beckman another year to make further progress, and he may very well believe that Banks is the right man for the job.  If things don't work out for some reason after next season, they all very well could be shown the door after the 2014 season, especially if the Illini don't return to a bowl game.

     Basketball is in full swing on both the men's and women's side, and thus far, the seasons are going on schedule given the circumstances of each team.  John Groce's men's team is off to a 7-1 start, having dropped their first contest of the season on Tuesday night 67-64 to Georgia Tech in the Big 10/ACC Challenge in Atlanta, Georgia.  The Illini led late in the game 60-48, when they went into hibernation mode, and ultimately, let the game slip through their fingers.  Afterward, Groce called his team's execution "pathetic", which leads to the fact that he wasn't none too happy about the outcome.  This is a young team, and a lot of the players haven't had the luxury of playing together as a group, so a letdown like this was bound to occur before too long.  The Illini don't have much time to dwell on this loss, as it's right back to Atlanta on Sunday afternoon to take on Auburn at Philips Arena (2:00 pm CT, FSN).

     Coach Matt Bollant's women's squad have struggled out of the gate this season, losing 2 out of 3 games in Cancun over Thanksgiving weekend, and then losing 93-69 to Georgia Tech on Wednesday night at the same arena that the men lost the night before.  In the loss to the Yellow Jackets, Jacqui Grant recorded another double-double, scoring 14 points and grabbing 11 rebounds in defeat.  The Illini are currently 5-4 on the season, and jump right back into action this weekend, when they travel to Colorado to battle the Buffaloes on Saturday evening (6:00 pm CT).

     When the Illinois volleyball schedule was released at the beginning of the season, it appeared to be one of the most difficult in the entire country, and given the Illini's final regular season record (16-14 overall, 12-8 Big 10), it paid off in the end.  As a result, the Illini did enough to not only make the NCAA Tournament, but was also chosen to host the first and second rounds of the tourney, and according to coach Kevin Hambly, it is an honor that is well deserved.  The Illini will take on Morehead State on Friday evening at around 7:00 pm, following the first game between Louisville and Marquette.  All of these matches will take place at Huff Hall, and the winners will play again on Saturday evening for a chance to move down the street to State Farm Center next weekend for the NCAA Regional.  So, for those of you that are keeping score, the Fighting Illini have a chance to play all the way up to the Final Four on their own campus, which could be very rewarding.  Just as the basketball team had a similar route close to home back in 2005 when they played in Indianapolis, Chicago, and ultimately, St. Louis for the Final Four, that could be beneficial in the long run.  Unlike the basketball run, though, the volleyball Final Four is in Seattle, so I guess it's not as perfect of a comparison.

     After a strong postseason run, the Illini soccer team finally saw their season come to an end, as they were defeated by Boston College 4-1 in the NCAA Tournament at Lincoln, Nebraska.  The Illini finish the season 11-9-3 overall, and can attribute a lot of that success to redshirt junior Jannelle Flaws and senior Vanessa DiBernardo.

     High school basketball returns to the State Farm Center this coming weekend, when Centennial High School hosts the Country Financial Centennial Shootout on Saturday.  Six games are on tap, including Illini signee Michael Finke, who will play the final game of the evening against Chicago Bogan.  A full list of the teams can be found at the following website:  www.centennialshootout,com