Normally, I use this space to blog about happenings and results of the various sports teams for the Fighting Illini. I still fully intend to do just that, but first allow me to go off the beaten path and rant a little bit about what the conference has been doing to improve their image.
On Tuesday, the Big Ten Conference announced that the 2017 Big Ten Tournament will be played at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. Yes, that Washington, D. C., as in our nation's capital. D. C., otherwise known as the center of the Big Ten markets. Give me a break. With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the conference on July 1st of this year, the Big Ten is striving to improve their presence on the East coast, and this is the latest in a series of events to make that happen. Last month, the Big Ten established an office in New York City, and earlier this week, the Big East and the Big 10 agreed to form a challenge similar to the one that is shared with the ACC. But why Washington D.C. you ask? I'm not entirely sure why this location was chosen, since the only team this really benefits is Maryland, which is about 90 minutes away. New York City makes much more sense as a rotation site, and I'm sure before long, that Madison Square Garden will be in the mix as far as hosting the tourney.
Several questions arise with this decision, namely the travel issues for the competing schools. Compute exactly how far the distance is from Lincoln, Nebraska to Washington, D.C. and you will begin to see what I mean. The Big Ten has for years had a midwestern feel, and recent expansion has taken a little of that away. We can't say that we didn't see this coming, because with all of the expansion in both east and west directions, the possibility of exploring other sites as tournament host was a foregone conclusion. But what about Detroit?, or Milwaukee.? Heck, give Milwaukee or Cincinnati a shot at it, because at least they are driving distance for most fan bases and media to cover the games. In the past, it has been a common occurrence for schools that lose on the first day to begin unloading their tickets for the rest of the tourney. Those teams that move on in the tournament, especially the fan bases within 3-4 hours of Chicago or Indianapolis, then converge on the venue hoping to scoop up tickets of the dejected fans leaving the arena. This more than likely won't be happening at the Verizon Center, or eventually perhaps Madison Square Garden in the future.
Basically, it all boils down to money, which is the main focus of the move east. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has done a phenomenal job as the leader of the conference, and with ventures such as the Big Ten Network, has lined the pockets of each institution in the conference as a result. However, I'm not sure how the attendance will be for this change, but we have a couple of years to worry about that. Maybe I'm just being a little selfish, since it has been a close drive for me over the past 10 years. The switch to the east coast will no doubt be criticized by many, but as has been the result with Delany over the past few years, anything he touches turns to gold. I'm sure this one will be no different.
Now, back to the sports on the field. The Fighting Illini baseball team finished off a perfect week, going 4-0, including a 3 game sweep of the Michigan State Spartans last weekend at Illinois Field. The Illini were sparked by junior Casey Fletcher, who found himself in several game winning situations, and came through in the clutch in every single one of them. Fletcher, who hit 3 home runs earlier in the week to beat Southern Illinois, hit 2 more against the Spartans, to help pace the Illini. For his efforts, Fletcher not only received the Big Ten player of the week honors, but also garnered the National player of the week award as well. Fletcher hit .471 for the week, with 10 RBI to go with those five dingers. The Illini (27-17 overall, 13-5 Big Ten), jumped into a tie for second place with Nebraska, and will go on the road for the final two series of the regular season, starting this weekend with Iowa. The Illini and Cornhuskers conclude the regular season in Lincoln against Nebraska, which could be an important series on many different levels.
The Fighting Illini women's softball team finished off the regular season on a high note, sweeping Penn State in 3 straight games at State College last weekend. The Illini, who enter this week's Big Ten Tournament with a subpar 23-25 overall record, and 7-16 in the conference, will face Iowa on Thursday afternoon at approximately 4:30 pm central time. The women's softball tournament will be held in Evanston, and if the Illini get by the Hawkeyes, they will face top seeded Michigan on Friday afternoon. Beginning with the quarterfinals on Friday, each of the remaining games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.