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.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Rock Bottom?

     The calendar has turned over to 2016, and two things remain crystal clear on the University of Illinois campus: 1) there is still no athletic director at the university, and 2) the sports landscape, particularly the mens and womens basketball teams, is a figurative mess at the momenr.

     As of this week, John Groce's team sits at 9-10 overall and 1-5 in the Big Ten Conference while Matt Bollant's womens team is not much better, checking in at 8-10 overall and 1-6 in league play.

     So, how did these teams get so dreadful?  A couple of clear reasons come to mind, although the excuses are getting a bit state, but they are still valid to an extent.

     For Groce, injuries have played a major part in his team's demise over the past couple seasons.  Barring a miracle comeback and a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, the Illini men will miss the NCAA Tournament for the third straight season, and Illini Nation is getting restless as a result.  Yes, the injuries have been rough, but one cannot continue to dwell on those, because in basketball, like most other sports, injuries happen.  Just not to the extent that Groce has seen players fall this season.

     Also severely hindering Groce is the fact that he has missed on too many of the top recruits, seeing them go elsewhere to further their playing experience for the next level.  So, why not Illinois, you ask?  The question might be better worded as Why Illinois?  With the current state of the university in flux, who in their right mind would want to come here, where coaches get turned around as quickly as the student body does?  After the Illini defeated Purdue a couple of weeks ago, they laid a proverbial egg against Nebraska and then got literally destroyed against Indiana on Tuesday evening, 103-69.  Has there been a lower point in Illinois athletics?  Is this rock bottom?  If it isn't, it's as close as many ever want to see it get.

     The situation on the womens side of things isn't much better, as the Illini have fallen on hard times after getting out to a 7-1 start to the season.  In his three plus seasons in Champaign, Bollant has seen more than his share of losing, something he wasn't used to at his last stop, Wisconsin-Green Bay.  The Illini women, too, have has their share of injuries, as point guard Cierra Rice has been sidelined with an injury, and as soon as she was lost, the swoon seemed to begin.  Added to that was the scandal involving former assistant coach Mike Divilbiss and the former players that claimed that racial bias occurred during practices the past couple of seasons.  All of these things do not help a program succeed.  Is this rock bottom for this program?  Since the program hasn't attained the level of success that it had when Theresa Grentz was here, it's getting close, but not nearly as bad as in the Jolette Law era.

     Then, we come to the football situation, which kind of directly ties into the athletic director search a little.  Head coach Bill Cubit was approved by the Board of Trustees at their meeting this week, but no move was made on the AD search, which comes as no surprise to anybody.  Former athletic director Mike Thomas sort of created this situation himself with the hire of Tim Beckman, who turned out to be one of the worst decisions in modern times anywhere.

     Speaking of the athletic director search, there is no real concrete news to report on that, but all kinds of rumors continue to swirl around about who will be the next person to lead the athletic program.  Some names of particular interest have been Rick George (current AD at Colorado), Josh Whitman (current AD at Washington University in St. Louis), Craig Tiley (former UI men's tennis coach and currently director of Tennis Australia), Sean Frazier (current AD at Northern Illinois), and Tom Michael (current AD at Eastern Illinois).  All five of these potential candidates have Illinois ties, and the rumor mill has been been churning non-stop for about the past month.  However, nobody knows what will truly happen, or, when it will officially occur.  One thing is clear: the next AD will have some major decisions once they are in place.

     Keeping on the AD search subject, when Thomas was hired, he proceeded to fire Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law after their respective seasons were concluded, and at the time, folks in Illini Nation thought that was rock bottom.  With the current state of the athletic department and the shape that the state of Illinois as a whole is in, this could challenge that as the low point in the history of the department.  We shall see, because the next month will be very interesting around the Urbana-Champaign campus.

Friday, January 8, 2016

2015 - A Year To Forget

     Oh, where do I begin?

     2015 was a year that most Illinois fans would love to forget, as many events happened all over the sports spectrum, leaving much indecision and speculation for the future.

     We begin this retrospect look back in football last February when then offensive lineman Simon Cjivanovic began a Twitter rant about his treatment, as well as others, from medical staff connected with the football team.  What was originally thought to just be sour grapes from Cjivanovic and then coach Tim Beckman turned out to be much more, as an internal investigation was started that looked further into the program.  After all of the dust settled, Beckman was fired just one week before the season opener, and offensive coordinator Bill Cubit was named interim head coach.

     Now, before Beckman was fired, Illinois lost one of their best recievers, Mikey Dudek, to an ACL injury, effectively sidelining him for the entire season.  So Cubit went on through the season as best as he possibly could, playing the hand that had been dealt to him.  Illinois started off the season at 3-1 heading into their Big Ten opener at home against Nebraska.  The Illini won a thrilling game against the Cornhuskers, and for the first time in quite some time, optimism bloomed in Champaign-Urbana and throughout Illini Nation.

     But, on the roller coaster ride that was Illinois football in 2015, there were peaks and valleys, and the peak of a 4-1 season quickly turned downward, as the Illini lost their next 3 games, including a 39-0 drubbing in State College, Pennsylvania at the hands of the Penn State Nittany Lions.  That left the Illini at 4-4 heading into a game in West Lafayette against a Purdue team that was struggling mightily themselves.  Illinois won the game 48-14, and the peak rose just a bit knowing that they were only one win away from becoming bowl eligible.

     To complicate matters, the following Monday, Athletic Director Mike Thomas was fired without cause by interim chancellor Barbara Wilson, and Paul Kowalczyk was named interim (there's that word again) AD for the remainder of the season.  What followed next was typical Illinois, as they lost their final 3 games of the season to finish the regular season 5-7.  Before the Illini's final regular season game, a "home" contest at Soldier Field in Chicago (go figure), Cubit was given a 2 year extension by interim AD Kowalczyk, a move that still has people shaking their heads about.

     Despite the 5-7 record, Illinois still had a chance to become bowl eligible, due to the lack of teams with the 6 wins to fill bowl slots.  This is pure evidence that there are too many bowl games.  Ultimately, Illinois was not selected, due to the criteria of the APR (Academic Performance Rate) not being high enough.  This fell totally in line with everything that happened during the season, and truth be known, Illinois didn't deserve a bowl berth in the first place.

     Now switching to the mens' basketball program, we find even more bizarre events.

     We rewind back to early March for this portion, when Illinois traveled to West Lafayette to battle Purdue with an NCAA Tournament bid well in sight.  Illinois played well for the first half, but fell apart in the second half, and lost the game, as well as it turned out, momentum heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago.

     Illinois drew Michigan in the first round, and were utterly destroyed in that game 73-55, thus ending any speculation that the Illini would make the NCAA field of 68.  Instead, Illinois made the NIT, and due to ongoing renovations at the State Farm Center (more on that later), had to play on the road at Alabama.  Once again, Illinois pretended to play basketball against the Crimson Tide, losing badly 79-58 to finish the season a very disappointing 19-14.  However, that was only the tip of the iceberg, as the off-season brought even more head-scratching moments.

     Illinois was granted an overseas trip during the summer, which was in France, and included the freshmen and transfers.  One such transfer, Darius Paul, was given a second chance by head coach John Groce, and once again could not stay out of trouble, and was asked to leave France ahead of the rest of the team.  This effectively ended Paul's involvement with the Illinois basketball team, but the chain reaction of events was far from over.

     Groce has been widely critized for not being able to recruit a point guard and a big man, and after several unsuccessful overtures by high level prospects spurning the Illini for other schools, Groce was left to settle for two fifth year transfers, Khalid Lewis and Mike Thorne Jr. to fill the void.

     To make matters worse, senior guard Tracy Abrams, who was coming back from an ACL tear the season before, tore his Achilles and therefore, was sidelined for this season as well.  Abrams has had some very unfortunate luck, but with everything going on within the program, it didn't surprise many.

     Before the season began, Illinois began a series of injuries to players of differing degrees.  First, incoming freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands was dealing with an injury, followed by in no particular order, Jaylon Tate, Kendrick Nunn, Leron Black and Aaron Jordan taking their turn nursing various ailments.

     Once the season began, the Illini had to play away from Champaign for the first 5 games of the regular season due to State Farm Center renovations.  The venue that was chosen for their "home" arena was the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, a far cry from the State Farm Center, but home nonetheless.  Illinois didn't play very well at the PCCC, losing to North Florida and Chattanooga over there ,and needing a last second three-pointer from Coleman-Lands to beat powerhouse (I kid) Chicago State.

     Just when you thought things were getting back to normal, well, things took another turn southward. First Black came back, but was clearly not the same and soon went on the shelf again.  Then, it was Thorne's turn to tear his meniscus, and the lack of the big man in the paint really began to handcuff the Illini.  As if things couldn't get any worse, Lewis contracted Mumps shortly after Christmas, and missed a couple games, and as recently as Thursday of this week, it was announced that Kendrick Nunn didn't make the trip to Michigan State because he stayed back in Champaign to witness the birth of his first child, who made his entrance into the world shortly before tipoff.

     This doesn't even begin to cover the scandal into the womens' basketball program, as well as the alleged abuse to a women's soccer player.  Sure, there have been some good things that happened in 2015, such as the Illinois baseball team qualifying and hosting both a regional and a super regional, as well as wrestler Isaiah Martinez continuing to dominate opponents.

     I can't make this stuff up, folks.  As a freelance writer and Illini correspondent, I have had the unenviable task of being front and center for a good majority of these happenings, and in all my years of watching and covering Illinois sports, I have never seen anything like this.  This would make a perfect movie script, and if you would have approached anybody a year ago with a proposal such as this, anybody would have thought you were crazy.

     I really can't envision 2016 starting off any better, as the mens' basketball team currently sits at 8-8 overall and 0-3 in the Big Ten, while the women are 8-7 overall and 0-3 in conference play as well.  However, one positive in all of this:  The State Farm Center renovation looks really nice.  Here's hoping that future recruits think that way too, and want to come here and change the direction of the program.