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.

Monday, December 7, 2015

New Digs, Same Result

     She looks great with the makeover.

     Wednesday night was the grand unveiling of the latest phase of the State Farm Center renovation, and upon seeing it for the first time since all of the seats and latest accentuations were finished, I came away very impressed.  It looked like a totally new arena, and adding to the effect was the dedication of Lou Henson Court.  The ceremony itself was a little disappointing and could have been enhanced by Lou or some former players saying a few words.  Instead, nary a word was uttered during halftime by any of the honored guests.

     Oh yeah, there was a game in all of the camaraderie as well.  With center Mike Thorne Jr. out indefinitely with a torn meniscus, the void that he leaves was very noticeable, what with Maverick Morgan and Leron Black trying to play the five.  The Illini came out strong against Notre Dame, taking a 41-33 lead at the half, and extending that to 10 at 43-33 with 18 minutes to play in the game, before the momentum swung in the opposite direction.  The Fighting Irish began to slowly chip away at the lead and finally were able to forge ahead and never look back from that point on.

     On Saturday, the result was a little better, as the Illini welcomed the Catamounts of Western Carolina to the State Farm Center, and it was essentially the Kendrick Nunn and Michael Finke show for the majority of the game.  Nunn scored 27 points, while Finke added 24, and for a while, they had the bulk of the points for the Illini.  Finke particularly enjoyed the game, since he sat out last season via a redshirt, and is extremely proud of being from Champaign and playing for his hometown school.  The Illini won 80-68 to improve their record to 4-5 overall.  The Illini will now begin a stretch of games that they are favored to win, beginning with Yale on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm, No TV).  The Bulldogs are 5-3 overall and are one of the favorites to win the Ivy League this season.

     Now that football season is officially over, the focus shifts to the off-season and the new athletic director search that will determine whether or not there will be a new coach sooner or later.  Illinois finished off the regular season Thanksgiving weekend at Soldier Field in Chicago by losing to Northwestern 24-14 before a poorly attended game in the "House That Payton Built".  Illinois dropped to 5-7 overall with the loss, and was still somehow in the conversation about qualifying for one of the 80 bowl spots that there are open.  The final decision came down to the APR (Academic Performance Rate) between the other teams with 5 wins, and due to a couple teams winning that needed to do so in order to make a bowl game, that left the Illini on the outside looking in.  In all fairness, it is probably best that this team didn't get to a bowl game, because with all of the turmoil that has surrounded the program these past few months, the focus probably wouldn't have been there.
     Granted, Bill Cubit did a good job of keeping everything together during all of this turmoil, and if there was anyone that deserved a bowl bid, it was him, along with all of the seniors.  It wasn't their fault that Tim Beckman was hired by Mike Thomas, but the thought of a 5-7 team making a bowl game tells me one thing:  THERE ARE TOO MANY BOWL GAMES!!  A loss in the bowl game would have given the Illini 8 defeats on the season, which is entirely too many when you think about it.  Plus, with the cream of the crop in the Big Ten getting better while Illinois and the teams in the middle trying to compete with them, that is simply just not good enough anymore.  The next few months will be very interesting in terms of what happens with the AD search, as well as any more coaching changes within the staff.  Stay tuned.

     Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is off to a good start in his fourth year at Illinois, and they opened up play in the State Farm Center on Sunday afternoon against Lehigh.  Illinois came away with a 76-67 win, and now have a 5-1 record on the young season.  Their lone blemish on the record was a 73-64 loss to Miami in the Big 10/ACC Challenge in Coral Gables, Florida last week.  In the win over Lehigh, Kyley Simmons led three Illini players in double figures with 21 points.  Super sophomore Chatrice White added 17, while freshman Cierra Rice chipped in 12 points.  The Illini have a busy week on tap, as they host both Southern Illinois and Central Michigan this week.  The Salukis come in on Tuesday night (7:00 pm), while the Chippewas visit on Saturday afternoon (2:00 pm).  Neither game this week will be televised.

     If there is one thing that Illinois volleyball coach Kevin Hambly does well besides coaching is to have his team play well at the right time of the season.  An up and down season has turned out to be another run in the NCAA Tournament, and that was further evidenced this past weekend, when the Illini made the short trip down to Louisville, Kentucky to take on Southern Illinois in the first round.  The Illini downed the Salukis in three straight games to take the match, then was rewarded with a match against the host Cardinals.  Illinois had defeated Louisville earlier in the season at Huff Hall in Champaign in 3 straight games, and Saturday was not much different, as the Illini dispatched the Cardinals in four games to advance to the regional semifinals against another familiar opponent, the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  Illinois lost a heartbreaker in Minneapolis earlier in the season, losing the match in five games.  Minnesota was the regular season Big Ten champion, and along with the #2 ranked Golden Gophers in the regional,  #15 Penn State and Hawaii are also in that bracket, so it will be a tough road to the Final Four, which will be held in Omaha, Nebraska the following weekend.