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.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

What next?

     Basketball season has been over for nearly a week, but judging from the headlines and the crime blotter, the team continues to make news, albeit the wrong kind.

     From all of the positive vibes that the hiring of Josh Whitman as new AD, and then the subsequent hiring of new Illinois football coach Lovie Smith two weeks later, Whitman's first major decision as the boss, things appeared to be heading in the right direction and Illini Nation was beginning to see some sunshine from the gloomy football and basketball seasons.

     Then, in early March, John Groce's men's basketball team began play in the Big Ten Tournament as the #11 seed, which meant that they played on Wednesday of the tournament, and after defeating Minnesota quite handily, they were facing an Iowa team that had been ranked in the top 10 in the country for a part of the season, and frankly, people didn't see coming what transpired.  Illinois beat the Hawkeyes to elevate them in the quarterfinals, a place that the Illini have seen themselves quite a bit in past years.  However, the high was short-lived, as the Illini suffered a gruesome defeat at the hands of Purdue, a team that they had beaten earlier in the season in Champaign to give Groce's team a shred of confidence at the time.

     Once the season was over, speculation grew about what the off-season would provide, since Whitman had already given Groce a vote of confidence and said he would return for the 2016-17 season.  This is where this story takes an unforseen turn, and it was not for the better,

     A mere six days after Illinois' exit from the Big Ten Tournament, we awoke to news that point guard Jaylon Tate was arrested for domestic battery, and his status for the future was unclear.  In a statement given by Groce, he said that "the legal system needed to run its course, and that passing judgement at this time would be unfair to Jaylon".  And so, a few days later, it was reported the the alleged victim in the case, who is a U of I softball player, changed her story and told authorities that it was herself that inflicted bodily harm to her and not Tate.  Okay, so case closed, right?

     Not so fast.  A few days later, it was reported that senior-to-be Kendrick Nunn was arrested for, you guessed it, domestic battery, and has been suspended from all basketball activities effective immediately.  This recent allegation sent Illini Nation into a frenzy, wondering what in the heck is going on within the program.  Again, Groce released a statement, this time jointly with Whitman, saying that once again that the legal process needed to be played out before passing judgement on.

     So, if you're keeping score, and since this is basketball we're talking about, why wouldn't you be, that makes four arrests on the basketball team in the past 12 months.  To review, we'll list them in chronological order.

     First, Darius Paul, who ended up never suiting up for Illinois in a meaningful game, was arrested in France on the team's European trip, and since this was his second infraction, was removed from the team, and asked to leave the overseas trip immediately.  Then, during the second half of the season, Leron Black, who sat out much of the season with an injury, was arrested for wielding a knife at a local establishment on campus, and suspended as well from the team.

     These arrests were just part of what has been a bizarre season for Groce and the Illini, who have dealt with injuries (Tracy Abrams, Tate, Mike Thorne Jr.), a case of the mumps (Khalid Lewis), missing a game because of the birth of a son (Nunn).  You really can't write a script any better than this one, and it's almost too unbelievable to be true, but, unfortunately, it is.

     Groce either has lost this team, or is the unluckiest man on the face of the earth.  You can argue the case from both sides.  Groce needs to instill in his players that this type of behavior will not be tolerated, and according to the past week and a half, the message is not being received, and that falls directly on the coach,  Yes, Groce cannot be with the players 24/7, but he also can make sure that the remaining players that haven't had any run-ins with the law can keep themselves on the right side of things.

     On the other hand, it isn't Groce's fault that the injuries and everything happened, and he has said on several occasions that he has seen nothing like this in all of his years of coaching basketball.  But the question needs to be addressed if Groce is the right person to lead this team into the future?  I think recruiting has a big impact on this decision, because up until now, Groce has not met the standards, mainly because he has missed out on several recruits (Alexander, Brunson), while failing to after others (Ulis).  In the mix for Groce are star 2017 targets Jordan Goodwin and Jeremiah Tilmon, and if he can get those top shelf recruits to come to Illinois, that might be enough to save his job.  However, with the situation with the current players, that plays a factor in their decisions, and they are watching from afar to see what develops.  Regardless of what happens, this is a mess and needs to be fixed, one way or the other.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team, after coming off a record setting season a year ago, is starting this season much rougher than last year.  Currently, the Illini are 7-9 on the season, and are coming off a tough 3-2 loss to Southern Illinois on Saturday in Carbondale.  Illinois, who had to reload a good portion of their roster from the team that advanced to the school's first Super Regional appearance, will battle the Salukis again on Sunday, before traveling to Normal on Tuesday to play Illinois State.  The Illini will open Big Ten play this coming weekend, when they welcome the Penn State Nittany Lions to Illinois Field starting on Friday.

     New Illinois softball coach Tyra Perry has the Illini playing well to start their season, and are off to a 17-8 record, winning three of their first four games in the San Diego Classic,  The Illini will face Seattle on Sunday to wrap up the tournament, before concluding the west coast trip on Tuesday with a doubleheader against Cal. State - Northridge.  The Illini will open up Big Ten play this coming weekend at Eichelberger Field in Urbana, when they host Nebraska.

     A big shout out goes to Illini wrestler Isaiah Martinez, who defended his title by winning his second consecutive NCAA championship in the 157 pound weight class.  Martinez, who lost his father earlier in the season, capped off an year full of emotions, and has placed himself in elite status among Illinois athletes.

     Finally, new Illinois football coach Lovie Smith's staff has finally been completed, and there are some big names on board.  Guys like former NFL players Luke Butkus and Hardy Nickerson, as well as Garrick McGee, who has coached with Smith elsewhere, should give the Illini name recognition within the coaching ranks itself.  Due to the late hiring, Spring practice has been pushed back a bit, and will begin on April 1, and conclude near the end of April.  In lieu of a spring game this season, the Illini will hold a practice that will be open to the public, and that practice is scheduled for Saturday, April 16th, the original date of the spring game.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Hitting The Ground Running

     I've waited a while to post a new blog because there hasn't been a whole lot of good things going on within the Illinois sports landscape.  Well. the wait is over and it has been an epic Saturday in Champaign-Urbana.  So much for a quiet first weekend in March.

     With barely two weeks elapsed since Josh Whitman was named the new Athletic Director of the University of Illinois, on Saturday morning, the news began to break just before 11:00 am that Illinois head football coach Bill Cubit had been fired, just a few short months after having the interim tag removed by then interim AD Paul Kowalczyk.  At the time, Cubit was given a two-year contract, which led many to believe that something like this could happen.

     What is the perhaps the strangest development of the whole process was the timing involved.  Whitman, who played football for Illinois from 1998-2001, decided to make the change on his first day removed from his last day at his previous employer, Washington University in St. Louis.  The firing was made just 6 days before the start of spring workouts, but given some of the recent decisions made within the University, this was not that big of a surprise.

     Whitman is trying to make a splash as he settles into the job, officially taking the reins on March 21st.  Along with Cubit, his son Ryan, who was the offensive coordinator, was also relieved of his duties.  The other assistant coaches, four of which have been hired in the last couple of months, will be given the opportunity to interview with the new head coach, and judging from the swiftness of this decision, Whitman must already have someone in mind as a successor.

     So, the next question is, who might that next person be?  Ever since the news broke, there have been several names leaping to the forefront of the discussion, but one name in particular, Lovie Smith, has been gaining steam.

     If the next coach is in fact Smith, then Whitman will make a huge statement for his first coaching hire at his alma mater.  Whitman, being a football guy, has immense passion for the program, and since football is the major revenue stream for the athletic department, that program needs to be overhauled and steered in the opposite direction that it is heading.

     Smith has been a head coach in the NFL, both with the Bears and the Buccaneers, and would also satisfy a criteria that the university has not had before, an African-American head coach for one of the two major sports programs at Illinois.  Stay tuned, because this could get even more interesting than it already has.

      On a local radio station sports show in Champaign on Saturday morning, Whitman gave Illinois men's basketball head coach John Groce a vote of confidence, meaning the he will be back at the helm next year for his fifth season in Champaign.  This will be a very important year for Groce, as the Illini attempt to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in what will be four seasons.  Groce made the big dance in his first year at Illinois, but has been shut out ever since.  Injuries have played a big part of that this season, as Groce has seen Tracy Abrams, Mike Thorne Jr. and  Leron Black out for virtually the entire season with various injuries,

     On the court, the Illini are struggling mightily this season, just 13-17 overall and 5-12 in the Big Ten as they play their regular season finale on Sunday morning at Penn State (11:00 am CT, BTN).
A win over the Nittany Lions will give the Illini the #11 seed in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and an opening round matchup against Rutgers, who just won their first conference game over Minnesota. Lose to Penn State, and you are looking at the #12 seed, and a date with the Golden Gophers, who have been having even worse luck than the Illini have as of late.  Regardless of who you play, it is not a viable place to be in, playing what essentially is the play-in game to the old conference tournament format.

     One reason Groce is returning deals with recruiting.  Already on board for next season is Te'Jon Lucas, a point guard from Milwaukee that, unfortunately, broke his foot in two places playing in front of Groce (and me too, for that matter) at Parkland last month.  For the 2017 class, Groce has received verbal commitments from Javon Pickett and DaMonte Williams, who is Frank Williams' son.  Still in the works, and possibly could be announced in the next few weeks are Jordan Godwin and Jeremiah Tilmon, two recruits from the St. Louis area.  Tilmon is playing this season at La Lumiere Prep in Indiana, the same school that produced Illini freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands.  With the future of the Illinois program looking brighter from the recruiting angle, that is reason enough to give Groce the benefit of the doubt and another season.  It certainly cannot get any worse.

     A question of judgement from new AD Whitman is why nothing has been said about the future of Illinois women's basketball coach Matt Bollant.  Bollant, who saw his team falter in the Big Ten season this year, finished their season a dismal 9-21 overall, and just 2-16 in the Big Ten.  What was most disturbing about the program was the scandal in the off-season involving former assistant coach Mike DiVilbiss, which ultimately led to his dismissal.  Bollant had marked success at his previous stop, Wisconsin-Green Bay, but has not been able to get the Illini program even remotely close to that level.  That news could come soon, later, or not at all.  Again, stay tuned.