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, March 13, 2014

On to the postseason

     They call it March Madness for a reason.  The Illini, pretty much written off as a lost season a month ago, have seen their season take an abrupt turn for the better, all thanks in part to better play on defense and a lineup change that wasn't the worst thing to happen either.  Since a 48-39 loss to Ohio State back on February 15th, all Illinois has done is win five out their last six games, including the last five away from State Farm Center.  The only loss in that streak was a blowout loss to Michigan (more on the Wolverines later), 84-53 on Senior Night.  The insertion of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to the starting lineup has given the Illini new energy, and the players that they replaced, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, have been embracing their new roles coming off the bench.  Nunn and Hill, both freshmen, have been a huge lift to a team that will be playing some sort of postseason, the question is which tournament will they in?  Conventional wisdom points to the NIT, but there is still an outside shot (and I mean an NBA level shot) of getting in the field of 68 and the NCAA Tournament.  After Illinois' win at Iowa last Saturday night, they finished the regular season at 18-13 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten, not great numbers, but much better than the season was looking just one month ago.  In fact, it took a last season shot by Ekey to defeat the Hawkeyes, and with it, loads of confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.  The Illini drew the #9 seed and faced Indiana, the #8 seed in the first game of the tournament on Thursday.

     The Illini and Hoosiers split the 2 games in the regular season, with the Illini winning 83-80 in overtime on New Year's Eve, while losing 56-46 back in January in Bloomington.  The Hoosiers came into the game with the Illini at 17-14 overall and also 7-11 in conference play, and needed a win over the Illini to boost their postseason chances.  Illinois jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead on Indiana, but the Hoosiers clawed back to take several leads on different occasions.  Tracy Abrams, who has had a disappointing second half of the Big Ten season, came up huge for the Illini, scoring a season high 25 points, and just missing his career best by 2 points.  The Illini lived to see another day by defeating the Hoosiers 64-54, and for that, a chance to rematch with Michigan on Friday in the first quarterfinal of the day (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  Rayvonte Rice scored 13 points, while Nunn knocked in 10 for the Illini, who improve to 19-13 with the win.  Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but another win in the tourney may open up the possibility of the Illini being mentioned as one of the teams on the proverbial NCAA "bubble".  Technically speaking, they probably have to get to the championship game on Sunday and even win the tourney outright to have a realistic chance, but is fun nonetheless to speculate, because as a media member, that is what we do.  Indiana,who falls to 17-15 overall with the loss, was led in scoring by Kevin (Yogi) Ferrell, who had 14 points.  Will Sheehey added 13 points, while freshman Troy Williams scored 11 for the Hoosiers, who outrebounded the Illini by a 35-32 margin.  As is the motto for this time of year, survive and advance, and the Illini know that firsthand.

     The season came to a very disappointing end last week in Indianapolis for the Illini women, as they were defeated 81-62 by the Iowa Hawkeyes, putting a cap on their season at 9-21 overall.  This isn't what Coach Matt Bollant envisioned when he took the job, but then again, the talent level wasn't very good when he came to Champaign.  Whatever the case, it is something to build on, as they only lose Amber Moore this year.  Bollant has a good recruiting class coming in next year, and with it, a chance to get up into the top half of the Big Ten.  It was pretty much an uphill struggle this season for the Illini ladies, and the fact that they finished the season with consecutive losses to the Hawkeyes certainly didn't help.  That is what Bollant hopes to build on for next season.

     The spring sports schedule has started at Illinois, and both the men's baseball and women's softball teams have been playing their southern trip games for the better part of a month now.  The baseball team is off to a 6-7 record, but that includes 2 wins over nationally ranked Florida.  The Illini are scheduled to take on Southern Illinois this weekend at the new Itch Jones Stadium, but weather may force the cancellation of those games.  The Illini host Indiana State next Tuesday in a game that the weather could also factor into.  Oh the joys of living and playing in Illinois in March.

     The softball team is off to a surprisingly fast start this season at 12-6, after an 8-0 start.  They haven't played as well lately, but that doesn't mean that they aren't slacking off.  The Illini are set to host the Illini Classic this weekend at Eichelberger Field, a tournament that includes St. Louis, North Dakota State, Omaha and Western Michigan.  There will be four games on both Friday and Saturday, before the Illini open up Big Ten play next weekend against Iowa.

     Finally, a special shout out goes to Illini wrestler Jesse Delgado, who won the Big Ten title at the 125 pound weight class last weekend at the Big Ten Championships in Madison, Wisconsin.  Delgado, by virtue of his title, received the #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Championships to be held next weekend in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Besides Delgado, the Illini qualified 7 other wrestlers into the NCAA's,  Those being as follows:  Zane Richards (133), Steven Rodrigues (141), Zac Brunson (157), Jackson Morse (165), Tony Dallago (174), Nikko Reyes (184) and Mario Gonzalez (197).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Signs Of Encouragement

     Beware folks, because this Fighting Illini men's basketball season just got a bit more interesting.  Left pretty much for dead 3 weeks ago, head coach John Groce decided to shake up his starting lineup, and the results have been astonishing at best.  Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were inserted into the lineup 6 games ago, and during that stretch of games, the Illini have gone 4-2, including the last 3 in a row being wins.  A winning streak is the last thing that this team would have expected given the rough road that they have faced in the Big Ten season this year.  But, the defense has stepped up in a huge way, holding their opponents to under 50 points in the last 3 games, something that hasn't happened since 1947.  The latest takedown:  #18 Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, a 53-46 win that has once again given life to the Illini's postseason hopes, and has also breathed a bit of optimism into Illini Nation.  Dare to dream?  Why not!  After all, the Illini are playing some of their best basketball in this latest stretch, and the addition of Nunn and Hill to the starting lineup has given the team new life.  Not to discount the players that they replaces, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, who are beginning to play a little better and are accepting their new roles as best as they can.  Bertrand was in a funk mid-season, and the steady shooting of Ekey has come back a little bit after going by the wayside earlier.  Illinois (17-12 overall, 6-10 Big Ten) looks like a totally different team as of late, and the thoughts are there that if they win out in the regular season and maybe steal one or two in the Big Ten Tournament, they could still get an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.  But before I get accused of drinking the orange and blue kool-aid, there still is a lot of work to do in order for that scenario to happen.  First of all, they need to win on Senior Night at the State Farm Center on Tuesday night against Michigan (6:00 pm CT, ESPN), then win yet another road game on Saturday at Iowa.  Then, and only then, they can worry about winning enough games in the Big Ten Tournament to boost the resume.  Speaking of the tourney, this year's edition should be one of the more balanced ones yet, and the possibility is definitely there of any team running the table and capturing the automatic bid to the big dance.  Yes, that includes Illinois, who is now perceived as a dangerous team with all of their recent success.  Whatever happens these final 2 weeks, it has given plenty of optimism for the rest of this season, and especially into next year.

     As far as things go on the women's side, the picture is not nearly as rosy, quite the opposite in fact. Matt Bollant's team has limped into the postseason, losing their last 10 games, and not winning since January 23rd, the Illini ladies finished dead last in the Big Ten, and hosted Senior Day on Sunday afternoon at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  A couple of positives can be taken out of the loss to Iowa.  First of all, they only honored one senior, Amber Moore, meaning that the rest of the team will remain intact for next season.  Second, Ivory Crawford scored her 1000th point in the game against the Hawkeyes, which is an impressive feat for anyone.  The Illini lost the game to Iowa 81-56, and finish the regular season with a dismal 9-20 overall record and a mark of just 2-14 in conference play.  For this, the Illini received the 12th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and will play on Thursday against #5 seed Iowa at approximately 1:30 pm central time.  The Illini should know the Hawkeyes' tendencies well, since they just played them.  It certainly hasn't been easy for Bollant this season, and I am sure that he did not expect this when he took the job and left Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he was virtually unbeatable.  Hopefully Bollanr can catch lightning in a bottle and make a run in the Big Ten Tourney, but given the way things have gone for them this season, that seems very unlikely at this point.

     Spring football is officially here, with practice beginning on Wednesday, and this promises to be a big year for coach Tim Beckman, who begins his third season at the helm of the Illini program.  It is also a make-or-break year for him, since the program needs some success in order for him to continue.  Athletic director Mike Thomas has made it clear that he wants to see the Illini programs compete for Big Ten titles, and he has given Beckman time to formulate his staff in order to get that done.  That makes 2014 a pivotal year for Beckman and his staff, and wins, not to mention a bowl bid, will go a long way in keeping them in Champaign beyond next season.  The Illini will hold 2 practices that will be open to the public, with the spring game being set for Saturday, April 12th at 2:00 pm.  An updated practice schedule can be found by going to and clicking on the football link.