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.