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.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Stretch Run

     Welcome to "Crunch Time", that point in the college basketball season when teams jockey for position to either better themselves for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or give their all in just missing out on the big dance.

     The 2014-15 Fighting Illini basketball season will go down as one that has had a lot of twists and turns, as well as ups and downs.  First of all, before the season even started, head coach John Groce found himself without two of his key players that he hoped would contribute to the success of the team.  Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and Darius Paul found himself in some legal trouble for off the court incidents and was dismissed from the team.  Abrams is set to return for the 2015-16 season after taking a medical redshirt, while Paul also plans on returning to Illinois after transferring and playing at a junior college in Texas this season.  Injuries have been the name of the game this season, and when senior Rayvonte Rice went out just after the first of the year after fracturing his non-shooting hand in a practice drill.  Then, to make matters worse, Aaron Cosby, the transfer from Seton Hall, sustained an eye injury against Indiana and was lost for a few games as well.  Both Rice and Cosby were then suspended by Groce for a violation of team rules, and while Rice has since been reinstated, Cosby has not and has been advised by Groce to take some time away from basketball to work on some things. It was announced on Friday afternoon at Groce's press conference previewing Michigan State that Cosby and the Illini have parted ways.  Apparently it was a mutual decision while the Illini work on finishing the season and Cosby will transfer to another school once he finishes up his degree this semester.  Got all of that?

     So, Rice was out a total of 9 games, and in that span, the Illini went 6-3 without him, much better than anyone anticipated.  During that span, Illinois defeated Maryland at home and went on the road to defeat Michigan State.  The win over the Spartans was especially gratifying because it gave the Illini some extra momentum on an already three game winning streak, plus added a quality win to their NCAA resume.  Even though the Illini lost at Wisconsin last Sunday 68-49, they still are in good position to make the NCAA Tourney provided that they can hold serve at home, and maybe steal one on the road for good measure.

     Standing in the way will be the Spartans, who make the return trip to Champaign on Sunday evening to play the Illini (6:30 pm CT, BTN).  It seems that the Illini woke Michigan State up with their defeat in East Lansing because since that game, the Spartans have played much better and are once again resembling a Tom Izzo coached team.  The Illini are 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, and still are in the mix of the logjam that is the middle of the pack in the conference race.  With the Big Ten Tournament just 3 weeks away, there still is a lot to play for, and in order to stay out of the bottom four of the league and have to play on Wednesday, the Illini need to finish strong.

     The Illini women's basketball team has struggled mightily as of late, and not because of a lack of talent, but for some unfortunate circumstances in which they have lost games by a close margin.  After upsetting Ohio State last week, the Illini ventured out to Piscataway, New Jersey to battle Rutgers for the first time ever, and came away with an 80-56 loss, their worst loss in the last 5 games.  The Illini are now 13-14 overall on the season, but just 4-11 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Purdue on Saturday for their final regular season road contest.  The Illini will end the season at home for the final two games before heading up to Hoffman Estates to the Sears Centre for the women's Big Ten Tournament the first weekend in March.

     Finally, closing this week's blog with some football news.  Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who was determined to play the position at Illinois and after several chances to move to another position where he would see action on the field, has decided to transfer to another school to finish out his eligibility.  Bailey was the backup to both Lunt and O'Toole this past season, and after O'Toole graduated, Lunt will undoubtedly be the starting quarterback once spring workouts begin next month.  Redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch may be named the backup and Bailey, who didn't wish to switch positions to see the field, is better suited going elsewhere.  Also, Tim Beckman hired a co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who has a coaching resume primarily in the NFL, the last of which was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair will coach the defensive line, a spot vacated when Greg Colby was fired last month.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

Signing Day Debacle

     Coach Tim Beckman could possibly become a singer in his next life, and if he does, he could use as his theme song the hit by Britney Spears entitled "Oops, I Did It Again".  What it is you ask that I am talking about?

     I am sure that you have heard this by now, but at his annual Signing Day press conference on Wednesday afternoon, Beckman took to his bully pulpit to challenge the media to be more positive about the program in general, instead of heaping it on the recruiting class, which was the best one that he has assembled in his four years as head coach.

     It is no secret that Illinois is lacking in some key positions, and this recruiting class went a long way in addressing some of those needs.  But to get up on the podium and lash out at the media to be more positive takes some guts.  But then again, with Beckman, we shouldn't be surprised.  Since he was hired at Illinois, Beckman has consistently given us, the media, some "comedic gold" with remarks or comments that he says.  As a matter of fact, just a couple months ago when the Illini received the Heart Of Dallas Bowl invitation, Beckman got up in front of the assembled media and mentioned that it was "a giggle" when referring to how he felt Illinois was being perceived.

     I know some of you are probably thinking as you read this (and I hope you are reading this!) that my comments thus far are part of the problem, but when you are given ammunition, you normally want to go out and use it, which I am doing.  I plan to get to the recruiting class in a bit, but I want to get this off my chest and out in print.

     I guarantee you that I am not the harshest critic of Beckman, and throughout his early tenure at Illinois, I have attempted to be very fair and report about the program on an objective  level, which is the main goal of the media.  Also, as a freelance writer for a local newspaper, I have, on occasion, met with Beckman one-on-one, as well as other coaches to complete stories with reputable quotes.  Sure, the program hasn't been the most successful over the past decade, but I do think that Beckman is making progress and trying to move the program forward.  The progression in wins over the past three years will reflect this point.  But to continually get up in front of reporters and do these missteps keeps the critics fueled and the fires burning.  And, no less, this was all done in front of athletic director Mike Thomas, who is responsible for bringing Beckman to Illinois in the first place.

     I guess if Beckman wants us to help him create a positive atmosphere around the program, I will do my best by offering a little advice. (He probably won't see this anyway, since he claims not to read any of it, but I regress).  Tim, if you want the media to write and report positively about you and the program, don't throw us under the bus in doing so.  You saw where that got Bruce Weber.  Okay, off my soapbox and onto the recruiting class as a review.

     Illinois welcomed 25 new signees, including 9 already on campus to take advantage of early enrollment and participation in spring practice, making this a strong class that addresses several critical needs.  The headline of the class is running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a four star player from Nashville, Tennessee.  Cameron Watkins, a two star defensive back, is also from the same high school (Pearl-Cohn HS) and was a major influence on Vaughn committing to the Illini.

     All told, four running backs and five offensive linemen highlight this class, in terms of need and filling those voids left by graduation and other attrition related departures.  Besides Vaughn, the running backs coming in are Dre Brown, (DeKalb), Reggie Corbin (Upper Marlboro, MD) and Henry Enyenihi (Lawrenceville, GA by way of Sacramento City College JC).  These four individuals will be able to hopefully step in right away and supplement Josh Ferguson and Kendrick Foster in the backfield.

     As far as the offensive linemen go, Gabe Megginson heads the class at that position, coming in from Jacksonville and having a chance to step in right away and make an impact on a position that was depleted by injuries last season.  Normally, you don't try and play true freshmen, but Megginson has that type of build that hints toward him trying to maybe spot fill one of those line positions.
I got a chance to catch with up with one of the new Illini linemen on Wednesday, Connor Brennan, and the juco transfer told me that he is excited to join the Illini family.

     "I really liked the family aspect that Coach Beckman conveyed on my visit, and the chance to step in and help the team out on the offensive line really appealed to me as well", Brennan said when asked why he chose Illinois.

     Beckman and his coaching staff have continued to hit the Chicagoland area, as well as the radius within "Illini Nation", which is a 6 hour radius any way from Champaign-Urbana.  The Illini have 6 from the state of Illinois with 2 of those downstate (Megginson and Champaign Centennial quarterback Jimmy Fitzgerald).  13 of the 25 players are within the radius of what Beckman likes to call "Illini Nation".  Spring practice will begin on Saturday, March 14th, with the 2015 annual Spring 'Orange & Blue Game' set for Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm at Memorial Stadium.

     During this stretch of Illinois basketball without senior guard Rayvonte Rice, the Illini have gone 4-3, and then when Aaron Cosby went down against Indiana with a retinal tear, the Illini had to regroup even more in his absence.  It was announced last Saturday just before game time that both Rice and Cosby have been suspended indefinitely by head coach John Groce for unspecified team violations (meaning we don't know what they did, nor will Groce divulge that information).  What we do know is that both are doing well in their recoveries and have been practicing with the team even through their suspensions.  In that span of games, the Illini have climbed back to the .500 mark in conference play at 5-5 and carry a 15-8 overall record into a tough road environment on Saturday at Michigan State (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  The Illini defeated both Penn State and Rutgers at the State Farm Center to square their Big Ten record and at least for the time being, keep their head above water and entertain talk about a possible NCAA Tournament bid.  At some point, Rice and Cosby will both return to the lineup, and when they do, their teammates will hopefully know their roles and not have to be the ones to step up like they have done since the duo have been sidelined.  Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn have done their fair share in keeping the Illini afloat, while sophomore Jaylon Tate and senior Ahmad Starks have also stepped up their games as well.  In the logjam at the middle of the Big Ten standings, a couple marquee wins would go a long way in determining the postseason future of Groce's squad, and like Groce frequently does, offers no excuses for any of their shortcomings.  What Beckman lacks in communication skills, Groce more than makes up for.

     Since jumping out to an 11-4 early season record, Matt Bollant's Fighting Illini women's basketball team has run aground of some hard luck losses that have sent them on a 7 game losing streak.  The Illini are now 11-11 overall, but just 2-8 in Big Ten play, and welcome Minnesota to the State Farm Center on Thursday evening (8:00 pm CT, BTN) for a chance to snap this skid.  As has been the case with Groce, Bollant's team has been dealing with some injuries, and they recently got Ivory Crawford back, who had been out several games with an injury.  Bollant continues to get some good play out of his McDonald's All-American freshman Chatrice White, but he knows that it takes much more than her to get the team back on the winning track.  After the Minnesota game, the Illini will play 4 out of their next 5 games away from Champaign.