So, the Illini are bowl eligible. Something that was deemed unthinkable a month ago came to fruition this past Saturday, as the Fighting Illini defeated the Northwestern Wildcats 47-33 to not only get their elusive sixth win of the season, but also take back the Land Of Lincoln trophy that has been residing in Evanston for the past two seasons. More importantly, however, it evidently bought head coach Tim Beckman at least another season in Champaign. In a statement on Sunday afternoon, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas announced that Beckman would be back for a fourth season, ending speculation that he would be gone at the end of the 2014 season. Whether or not this turns out to be a good idea in the long run, the mere fact that the Illini reached the six win mark and bowl eligibility seemed to be enough.
True, at times it looked as if Beckman would not return in 2015, but Thomas wanted progress, and going from 4 to 6 wins showed him all he needed. With starting quarterback Wes Lunt still not 100% from his fractured fibula injury sustained earlier in the season, the onus fell upon senior Reilly O'Toole to shoulder the load and lead the team to victory. And lead is what he did, completing 17 of 28 pass attempts for 147 yards and throwing three touchdown passes. Freshman sensation Mikey Dudek, who is nearing 1,000 yards receiving for his inaugural year, caught 7 passes for 63 yards and one of those scores. Fellow freshman Malik Turner caught his first career touchdown, and senior Martize Barr caught O'Toole's other offering. Tailback Josh Ferguson found the endzone twice, and Mason Monheim returned an interception 49 yards for a score. Illinois improves to 6-6 overall and 3-5 in the Big Ten with the win, and will now get some extra practice time, which Beckman thinks will benefit his team greatly.
So, what does this all mean? No destination has been announced as of yet, but two possible places that the Illini could land are either in Dallas or Detroit. The Big Ten has bowl ties with 10 bowl games, so it seems that all the teams eligible should get one of the conference tie-ins. So, it really depends on a couple factors, the main one being how a team will travel. Judging by the way attendance was at the final home game this season, the Illini contingent will not be a large one since morale is at a level that hasn't been seen in a long time. Hopefully a bowl win will change the mood.
Things have started out very well for John Groce's Fighting Illini mens' basketball team, as they have been one of the highest scoring teams in the nation through the first two weeks of the season. The Illini captured the championship of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational this past weekend with wins over Indiana State and Baylor. The Illini played their first true road game on Tuesday evening at Miami (Florida) in the annual Big 10/ACC Challenge, and suffered their first setback of the young season 70-61 to the #15 ranked Hurricanes. The Illini entered the national rankings themselves for the first time on Sunday, coming in at #24, but most lilkely will fall back out when the new polls are released at the end of the coming week. Senior Rayvonte Rice scored 22 points and notched a double-double with 12 rebounds. Malcolm Hill continued his early season success by scoring 13 points, the only other Illini player to record double figures. The Illini fell behind on several different occasions, but found a way to come back most every time. The problem was that Miami had an answer for every Illinois comeback, and proved to be too much down the stretch when the game was in the balance. The Illini fall to 6-1 on the season,. while the Hurricanes improve to 8-0 with the win. The Illini return to action on Saturday afternoon when they welcome the Eagles of American University to the State Farm Center. Game time with American on Saturday is set for 1:00 pm central time and will not be televised.
Matt Bollant's Fighting Illini women's basketball team is also off to a good start early in the 2014-15 season, and already have one signature win to their potential NCAA Tournament resume. The Illini defeated #9 Kentucky 77-71 in the opening round of the Paradise Jam Tournament in the Virgin Islands to continue momentum from the first few games of the season. However, that mementum was short-lived, as the Illini dropped a pair of games in the remainder of the tourney, losing to South Florida 67-61 and then falling to Oklahoma 78-76 in overtime. Bollant has welcomed early season huge numbers from his freshman McDonald's All-American, Chatrice White, who is playing really well. In the loss to the Sooners, Ivory Crawford scored 27 points to lead the Illini, but it wasn't enough to secure the win. The Illini return home on Wednesday night to take on the Virginia Cavaliers in the women's version of the Big 10/ACC Challenge at the State Farm Center. The Illini enter play with Virginia at 5-2, while the Cavaliers come in at 5-1 overall. The game, which is scheduled to begin at 7:00 pm central time, will not be televised, but will be available on the BTN Plus platform for a nominal fee.
Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team completed a very successful regular season with a 3-1 victory over Michigan this past Saturday evening at Huff Hall. Illinois was paced by Katie Stadick, who hit .444 with 8 kills and 9 blocks and Jocelynn Birks led both squads with 16 kills. With the victory, the Illini seal up third place in the Big Ten standings with an overall mark of 24-7 and 16-4 in conference play. On Sunday evening, the Illini learned their fate in the upcoming NCAA Tournament, where they were named the #9 overall seed. The Illini will host the first and second rounds this weekend at Huff Hall, the 16th time they have hosted and the fifth time under Hambly. Illinois will face Murray State (26-5, 14-2 in the OVC) on Friday evening at 7:00 pm, with Iowa State and Western Kentucky facing off in the other game right before the Illini match. The winners will face each other on Saturday evening for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.