Welcome to the postseason, or as Illinois head coach John Groce calls it, the "third season". The Fighting Ilini completed the regular season ths past Saturday and although they could have used a win to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, the opposite result happened, as they dropped a 63-58 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana. The Illini finished the regular season with a 19-12 record overall, with a 9-9 Big Ten mark. The game started out very well for the Illini, as they jumped out to a quick 15-2 lead before Purdue knew what hit them. Illinois kept up that intensity for the majority of the first half, only to see the Boilermakers close the gap to 26-21 at the half. In the second half, Purdue took over, as they dominated early and often in the second stanza to get a double digit lead of their own. Illinois made one last gasp at the end of the game, but it was a little too late, and they couldn't catch the Boilermakers. A win would have given the Illini 10 conference wins, but more importantly, the 7th seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago. Instead, the Illini find themselves in a familiar spot, the 8th seed, and will face an opponent that they know all too well, Michigan (11:00 am CT Thursday, BTN). Illinois and Michigan split their two games this season, with the Wolverines winning in overtime 73-65 in Ann Arbor on December 30th, and the Illini returning the favor on February 12th in Chamnpaign 64-52, also in overtime. This will be the rubber match between the two schools, with a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Wisconsin awaiting the winner on Friday morning. It has been an interesting season for Groce's Illini team, with all of the injuries and other off the court issues plaguing the team this season. Michigan has had a tough season of their own, currently sitting at 15-15 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten. The Wolverines have been beset with injuries as well, losing two of their more prolific scorers, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. for the remainder of the season. Illinois cannot stand to make an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday. Even a win over the Wolverines doesn't guarantee a berth, but if everything falls right, it could still be a possibility. Illinois is 0-1 at their home away from home, the United Center, losing earlier in the year to Oregon 77-70.
With March upon us, it will soon be time for spring football. Illinois coach Tim Beckman begins his fourth season as the head man in Champaign, and this should be his deepest team in his tenure. The Illini finished the 2014 season with a 6-7 record, losing to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl. Quite a few players return on defense for the Illini, which was a little better last season than the year before. Beckman has stressed that depth is still an issue at several key positions, and that has been addressed further by more junior college transfers. With the coaching staff still not complete, Beckman has filled one of the positions by hiring Mike Phair, who formerly coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Phair brings with him some credibility with working with defensive players, and will give Tim Banks some flexibility as he becomes co-coordinator with Phair. Spring workouts begim on Saturday, March 14th, and will culminate with the annual spring game on Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm.
On the topic of football, the University of Illinois announced on Monday that the first home game of the 2015 season has been switched to Friday night, September 4th instead of the following day. Game time has yet to be announced, but expect it to be in the 7-8 pm time frame. Even though this will interfere with high school games that evening, Beckman still thinks that this is a good idea. Only time will tell if they made the right decision.
The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to their best start in a long time, and have stormed out to a 12-3 record and ranked #19 in this week's poll. A lot of the early season success can be attributed to the pitching staff of Drasen Johnson, Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay. The Illini won a series this past weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and returned home on Tuesday afternoon for their home opener against Chicago State, a game that they also won by a score of 7-3. The Illini will keep the homestand going this weekend when they begin a three game series against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.
The Fighting Illini women's softball team has started off their season on a not-so-good note, currently with an 8-15 record. The Illini finished off a 1-4 trip to Los Angeles, California this past weekend, losing to UC-Davis, Providence, and #13 UCLA in the process. The Illini will begin Big Ten play next weekend at Eichelberger Field in Champaign against Minnesota, with games beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, 1:00 pm on Saturday, and noon on Sunday.