As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a few items on the Illinois horizon appear to be eerily familiar, while others have taken either a turn for the better or worse, depending on how you see things. Don't catch my drift? Allow me to elaborate.
First of all, the Fighting Illini football team is once again in a familiar situation, and that is needing a win in their final "home" game against Northwestern to become bowl eligible. The game, which will be played at Chicago's Soldier Field, was the brainchild of both Tim Beckman and Mike Thomas, both of whom are no longer employed at the university. The latter hired the former, which was clearly a grave mistake, leading Thomas to be shown the door about 3 months after Beckman himself was fired. The reason that was given for moving the game up to Chicago for a "home" game was to appease the donors in the city and suburbs because every other year, the IHSA football playoffs alternate between Champaign-Urbana and DeKalb, and this was a year when the championships were in DeKalb. Sooooooo, now there is nothing going on in C-U this weekend, which is bad for businesses like restaurants and hotels. Plus, Illinois is hosting Senior Day festivities up in Chicago, which makes absolutely no sense to me as well. The players apparently voted for this, since quite a few of them live within striking distance of the city and welcomed the chance to have their honors bestowed upon them in an NFL environment.
It's no secret that the Illinois-Northwestern game last year at Ryan Field was a poor draw, as was the last game in Champaign two years ago, so a change in venue was a viable option. With many of the students that attend the university hailing from the suburbs anyway, it would be an easier trip for them to make. Truth is, many of them don't even attend when they are blocks away in C-U, so why would they make the trip some 40 minutes or so to the lakefront to watch the team play? The university needs to figure some things out, as they are still in turmoil because there is no permanent athletic director in place, and interim coach Bill Cubit is politicking for the job for next season.
Which brings us to the actual game on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ESPNU). Illinois needed a win in their last two games in order to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, and they couldn't get the job done last weekend against Minnesota in Minneapolis, losing 32-23 to the Golden Gophers. Even though the Illini have remained somewhat competitive in their losses, a loss is still that, and they can ill afford to have another one. One bright spot is that there may not be enough 6-6 teams to fill bowl slots, so the possibility exists that a 5-7 team could go bowling. This tells me two things:
1) there are too many bowls now, and 2) you get rewarded with 15 extra practices for a bowl for a losing record. Cubit has done a great job holding this team together despite all they have been through, and the injuries have taken a toll throughout the season. At his weekly press conferences this season, Cubit has remained steadfast that he would like to continue at the controls, but maintains that it is not his decision to make. Cubit is an all-around good guy, and personally, I would like to see him stay another season to bridge the gap between he and the next coach. After all, he is 62 years old, and I don't see him wanting to do this for very much longer. Plus, with no full-time Chancellor or athletic director, time is closing in, especially with all of the other jobs that are open, or could become open once the regular season is finished this weekend. We shall wait and see what happens on this subject, as some movement could come as early as next week.
Another Mike Thomas gem of a decision was to move the first five games of the 2015-16 Fighting Illini men's basketball season to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, since the State Farm Center is finishing the current renovation phase, and now that the "experiment" in Springfield is complete, the results are in, and they are less than adequate. I was able to make it over to one of the games, and came away less than impressed about the experience. The PCCC is much smaller, and didn't feel like a home court atmosphere. The Illini finished their residency in the state capitol 2-2, although they trailed for a good majority of the time, even in the games that they won. Add a close loss to Providence on the road, and Illinois sits at just 2-3 overall, leading many to speculate just how warm the seat the John Groce sits on will get if the present situation continues.
The losses, to North Florida and Chattanooga, were bad, and the way that the Illini played in those games did not help the unease of the fan base, many of which are in the mode of not caring. Even in the wins over North Dakota State and Chicago State, the Illini trailed late, before making comebacks on both occasions to win the game. As a matter of fact, it took a three-pointer by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands at the buzzer to defeat Chicago State 82-79 on Monday night. A loss to the Cougars would have set the Illini at 1-4, their worst start since 1906, and would have set outrage by Illini Nation. The loss at Providence was actually their best performance of the season, and if Michael Finke gets his follow-up slam of Malcom Hill's missed layup to fall, all of a sudden maybe the season gets looked at a bit differently.
Groce does have some leverage for an excuse, with injuries to three of his top players that were expected to compete for a bulk of the playing time. Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are all out, with Nunn and Tate expected back within the next couple months. Sophomore Leron Black is also coming back from an injury as well, and while he has played sparingly, is not totally back, and it shows on the court. Once Groce gets his arsenal of players back, roles and rotations will change a bit, and hopefully, so will the results on the court.
Illinois now continues the Florida portion of the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will play UAB on Friday night (8:30 pm CT, CBS Sports Network), and then depending on the outcome of that game, will play either Iowa State or Virginia Tech on Saturday (TBA, CBS Sports Network).
Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is also feeling the effects of not playing in the State Farm Center, but they played their home games much closer to campus at Parkland College, and so far, the results have paid off. Bollant's crew is off to a 4-0 start, including a 98-43 romp over Tennessee State on Tuesday evening at Parkland. The Illini have hit the 90 point plateau three times this season, including the exhibition game, and will play their first true road game next Wednesday evening when they travel to Coral Gables, Florida to face the University of Miami (6:00 pm CT). After the trip to Florida, the Illini will play 6 of their next 8 games at the newly renovated State Farm Center.
Finally, Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team begins to wrap up the regular season portion of the schedule on the road, first taking on Nebraska in Lincoln on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm CT), before completing regular season play on Friday in Ann Arbor to face Michigan (5:00 pm CT). The Illini are 19-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten, so a pair of wins to finish strong will do a lot for Illinois and their quest for an NCAA Tournament invite.
Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!