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, January 30, 2014

A Crazy Mixed Up Season

     The fears of many are finally being realized.

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team saw their losing streak reach six games last Sunday afternoon, when they were defeated by the Indiana Hoosiers 56-46 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana.  Once again, the Illini played capable of winning the game, but couldn't come through in the clutch.  It's time to face the facts that this is not a very good shooting team, no matter how you look at it.  In the loss before to Ohio State (62-55 last Tuesday in Columbus), Illini junior Rayvonte Rice was held without a point for the first time in his college career.  The way the Illini played against the Buckeyes, they could have won the game had Rice been on his game and made some of his shots.  Fast forward to Sunday against the Hoosiers, where Rice regained his lost touch, by scoring 20 points and grabbing 4 rebounds. During this streak, the Illini have failed to capitalize on the things that they were successful in during the non-conference portion of the season.  Or, is it simply that other teams have learned how to defend the Illini, and are using that strategy?  Whatever the case may be, the Illini are in grave danger of finishing last in the Big 10 for the first time in nearly 30 years.  The conference has been anything but predictable this season, with multiple upsets happening all over the league. For instance, on Wednesday night, Penn State went into Columbus and handed Ohio State their fifth loss in six games in overtime.  The lone win for the Buckeyes in that stretch?  Yep, you guessed it, the Illini.  In the late game on Wednesday evening, Northwestern continued its mystery by upsetting Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, a place where many teams don't win very often.

     So, what does all of this mean?  The upcoming Big Ten Tournament should be very balanced, and with the exception of Michigan and Michigan State atop the league standings, the rest of the conference is very comparable to each other.  The Illini need a win more than anything, and they have a couple home games in a row in order to right the ship.  The first chance comes on Saturday evening, when they welcome the Iowa Hawkeyes to the State Farm Center (6:30 pm CT, BTN). The Illini are currently 13-8 overall, and are at the bottom of the Big 10 standings at 2-6.  The Hawkeyes are one of the better teams in the league this season, but as recent history has shown, anybody can beat anyone on any given night.  This could either get more interesting, or spiral down into disaster.

     After a couple recent wins, the Illini women's basketball team has once again begun to struggle, as they are playing teams close, but like their counterparts on the men's side, are having trouble closing games out.  The Illini lost to Purdue last Monday evening at the State Farm Center 80-68, and the Boilermakers obviously have the Illini's number, as they have beaten the Illini regularly for the past several seasons.  On Thursday night, the Illini ran into a hot shooting Ohio State team in Columbus, and were defeated 90-64 to drop their record to 9-12 overall and 2-6 in the Big 10.  Matt Bollant's team will jump back into action this weekend when they welcome Indiana to Champaign on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).

     With football national letter of intent signing day just a week away, the talk of football is once again in the air.  The DIA opened up the quarterbacks that are vying for the job that was vacated by the departure of Nathan Scheelhaase, and let each of them speak to the media on Wednesday afternoon.  Senior Reilly O'Toole, sophomore Aaron Bailey, and transfer Wes Lunt are all in competition for the position, and it remains to be seen who is the clear cut favorite.  Odds are with Lunt, since he started as a freshman at Oklahoma State before leaving to transfer to Illinois.  But Bailey and O'Toole each have their strong points as well, so when spring practice begins in a few weeks, all eyes will be on these three signal callers.  Also, in football news, Corey Lewis announced on Thursday that he played the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL, but didn't say anything to anyone about it.  Lewis is a remarkable person, not only on the field for his perseverance, but also off the field, and is very candid about all of his previous injuries.  He is still planning on pursuing an NFL career, and I hope he is successful, because you couldn't wish it more for a person than him.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Rough Waters Ahead

     Something's gotta give in this one.  The Big Ten Conference has always been known for its rough and tumble play, and this season, it is no different.  The Fighting Illini have undergone their share of ups and downs in the conference as well this season, and lately, most of it has been on the down side.  After getting out to a 2-0 start in the Big Ten, the Illini have lost their last 4 games, including surprising losses to Northwestern and Purdue.  The other two losses, to Wisconsin and Michigan State, were expected, and the fears of many in Illini Nation have been realized in that this is not a good shooting team.  To make matters worse, Coach John Groce has been more animated on the sidelines, and even earned a technical foul in the 78-62 loss to the Spartans last Saturday night at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  Groce, who was agitated at one of the officials for not getting some illegal screen calls during the game, had evidently had enough and shed his sportcoat, which resulted in the technical foul.  Groce has since apologized for his actions, and while the energy is good, some of the actions are a little over the top.  The Illini, now 13-6 overall and 2-4 in the Big Ten, will hit the road for the first of two games Thursday night when they travel to Columbus, Ohio to battle the Ohio State Buckeyes at Value City Arena (6:00 pm CT, ESPN).  The Buckeyes, ranked #15 in the country, have fallen on hard times themselves as of late, losing their last 4 games after sprinting out to a 15-0 start.  This is the first 4 game losing streak for the Buckeyes since the 2005 season, so this is essentially foreign territory to them.  The history between Groce and Ohio State coach Thad Matta goes way back to their days at Butler, where Groce was an assistant on Matta's staff.  They also coached together at Xavier, and also at Ohio State.  When this game was viewed on the schedule, nobody had any idea that the winner of this contest would have sole possession of 8th place in the conference, but with the Big Ten being as it is this year, that is what they are playing for.

     Matt Bollant's Illini women's squad broke its own four game losing streak last week at Northwestern, but they still have a long way to go before they are playing at the level the second year coach wants them to play.  The Illini played their first of two straight games in the state of Michigan last Saturday and lost 69-60 to the Wolverines.  The Illini played from behind for the entire game, and cut the lead to 6 late in the contest, but Michigan hit 7 of their final 8 free throws to seal the victory.  The Illini were led by Ivory Crawford, who scored 19 points.  Jacqui Grant added 16, while Amber Moore chipped in 15 for Illinois, who fell to 8-10 overall and 1-4 in the Big Ten with the loss.  The Illini will travel back to Michigan on Thursday night when they take on the Michigan State Spartans in East Lansing (6:00 pm CT, No TV).

     With the spring semester just beginning on campus, it may be a ways off in the distance, but the 2014 Spring Football schedule has been set, with workouts beginning on Tuesday, March 4th.  The Spring game will be on Saturday, April 12th at 2:00 pm.  Hopefully with all of the junior college transfers that Coach Tim Beckman has coming in, plus the fact that all of the youth that saw much action last season hopefully turns the needle up for the football program.  They need some success, and they need it fast.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Rough Sailing

     Welcome to the rough and tumble Big Ten Conference, where you never know what might happen on any given night.

      After a fast 2-0 start out of the gate for John Groce's Fighting Illini, the team has hit a bit of a wall, and earlier than most figured they would.  Wins over Indiana and Penn State at home were followed by losses to #4 Wisconsin and Northwestern on the road.  The Wisconsin outcome was expected, but nobody could fathom the Illini falling to the Wildcats, who were just 7-9 coming into the game.  The Illini had an anemic shooting performance, losing the game 49-43, and stalling any momentum that they may have built up with those first two conference wins.  To add injury to insult, Illini guard and possibly the best player on the team, Rayvonte Rice, has been dealing with a hip adductor strain and is currently listed as day-to-day.  Rice injured himself in the first half, and really wasn't the same afterwards.  The Illini missed 30 out of their first 36 shots, and could only muster 15 first half points.  Forward Jon Ekey, who has been in a slump himself lately, could be referred to as "streaky Ekey", given his erratic shooting.  At his press conference on Tuesday, Groce had a simple solution for Ekey, and that was to "just keep shooting"/  As a matter of fact, he has given that same advice to Nnanna Egwu and others that are struggling from the field.  Tracy Abrams, who has become the vocal leader of the team, was the only player to notch double figures for Illinois in the loss to Northwestern, scoring 13 points.  Rice was limited to just 8 points, and for the Illini to get back on the winning track, they will have to have Rice healthy,  The Illini return to the State Farm Center on Wednesday night to host Purdue (8:00 pm CT, BTN), in what hopes to be a win to break this brief 2 game losing streak.  The Boilermakers come into the game at 11-5 overall, and 1-2 in the Big Ten.  After Purdue visits Champaign, the Illini begin a tough 5 game stretch, beginning with #4 Michigan State paying a visit to the State Farm Center on Saturday night (7:00 pm CT, BTN).

     Illinois women's basketball coach Matt Bollant has found life in the Big Ten rough in his sophomore season as head coach, and even though they have begun the season with an 0-3 conference mark, they have remained competitive.  After losses to #14 Penn State and Nebraska last week at home, the Illini embark on a three game road swing, beginning with a trip to Northwestern to battle the Wildcats (8:30 pm CT, No TV).  This us a game that was supposed to be played last week, but the snowstorm in the midwest postponed the game until this week.  The Illini enter play with Northwestern at 7-9 overall, but 0-3 in the Big Ten.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

And onward to the Big Ten we go!

     2013 was a good year for John Groce in his first season as Fighting Illini basketball coach, and from the looks of the 2013-14 season, that seems to be going just as well.  The Illini finished off the non-conference portion of the season with a flurry, defeating the Flames of UIC 74-60, after being down by 10 at the half. This sluggish start might have been attributed to a slight letdown following the Braggin' Rights win over Missouri just one week earlier in St. Louis.  The Illini finished the pre-conference season at 12-2, but could very easily have finished one win better at 13-1, had it not been for a late game collapse against Georgia Tech in Atlanta.  Still, 12-2 is not a bad way to enter the Big Ten portion of the schedule, and with the conference slate beginning a week earlier than normal this season, Groce had his players poised for another surprising run in league play.

     Enter the Indiana Hoosiers to State Farm Center for a New Year's Eve matinee, and the Illini had a chance to accomplish something that had never been done before, which was beat Indiana in Champaign twice in a calendar year.  Who could forget last season's thrilling win over the top-ranked Hoosiers 74-72, as Tyler Griffey broke away from Indiana defender Cody Zeller to score the game winner as time expired.  It would be hard pressed to top that performance, but the Illini tried.  The Illini and the Hoosiers traded leads for the better part of the game, with the score tied at the break 39-39, as well as at the end of regulation at 71 apiece.  Rayvonte Rice, who sat out last season as a result of transferring from Drake, has been nothing short of sensational so far this season, and Tuesday afternoon he almost singlehandedly willed the Illini to victory.  Rice scored 29 points , playing 42 of the 45 minutes of the contest to help lead the Illini to an 83-80 victory over their rivals to the east.  Tracy Abrams added 17 points, while Joseph Bertrand scored 13 points for the Illini, who improved their overall season record to 13-2 and 1-0 in the rugged Big Ten.  The Hoosiers won the battle on the boards by a sizable 43-31 margin, and the Illini took advantage of 23 Hoosier turnovers, compared to 10 for Illinois.  Indiana falls to 10-4 overall with the loss, and start the conference season 0-1.  Indiana coach Tom Crean mentioned in his postgame press conference that he thought Groce was one of the best coaches in the entire country, a fitting compliment to the job that he has done so far in just his second season at the helm.  The Illini have a few days to savor the victory over the Hoosiers before next getting into action, when they welcome the Nittany Lions of Penn State to the State Farm Center on Saturday afternoon (1:15 pm CT, BTN).  Also taking place on Saturday will be the 25th anniversary of the Flyin' Illini Final Four team.  That team was one of the best in Illinois history, and still rank as one of the best teams of all-time never to have won it all.  You cannot go back in time and change the course of history, but it would be interesting to see what might have been if the Illini could have beaten Michigan that fateful Saturday evening in Seattle.  You never know.

     Matt Bollant is not seeing the same success for his women's team that the men's team is seeing, but they are still a work in progress.  With a 7-6 record in the non-conference season, the Illini open up the Big Ten portion of the season on Friday evening when they welcome the Wisconsin Badgers to the State Farm Center (7:00 pm CT, BTN).  The Illini lost to #18 ranked Georgia 82-60 last Sunday afternoon in Athens, Georgia, and have lost to 3 top 20 teams thus far this season.  Amber Moore leads the Illini ladies in scoring with an 18.8 average, followed by Ivory Crawford and freshman Jacqui Grant averaging 13.5 and 12.8 points per game, respectively.  Hopefully the Big Ten season will be much more kind to the Illini.