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 www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link.