Illinois season preview - Part 2: Defense

Illinois season preview - Part 2: Defense
A liability the past couple of seasons, a revamped defense for the Illini will regain experience, as well as talent.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Getting Defensive

     It is no secret that the main reason why the Fighting Illini football team didn't exactly excel on the field last season was the defense, and the lack of talent on that unit the past couple of seasons.  In this, the second of three parts on previewing the 2014 Illinois Fighting Illini football season, I will be looking at the defense this time, and the transformation that is undergoing on that unit.

     When Illinois head coach Tim Beckman decided to retain defensive coordinator Tim Banks at the end of last season, many people began to shake their heads in disbelief and wondered (some aloud, mind you) if Beckman's decision would ultimately cost him his job.  Banks hasn't exactly been solid in running his unit, but the lack of talent may have something to do with that.  Of the 22 players on the two-deep roster, 20 players return from last season, giving the Illini some much needed experience, as well as some added depth to the roster, as younger players fill in the necessary gaps.  The two players that did not return, defensive lineman Tim Kynard and linebacker Jonathan Brown, both graduated.  The defense, while still rather suspect, at least has a chance to improve on a very disappointing season in 2013.

     Anchroing the defensive line are a cast of returning players from last season, including Austin Teitsma, Dawuane Smoot, Teko Powell and Kenny Nelson.  Perhaps the best news regarding these four players is that Teitsma is the only senior in the group.  Teitsma, a media favorite, plays with a lot of intensity on the field, and would like nothing more than to go out with a bowl appearance.

     Much like Beckman did on the offensive side of the football, he went out and picked up some junior college players to help fill in needed gaps and bolster the experience on the line.  One of the more intriguing players is Jihad Ward, who has quite a story himself about how he got to practice at Globe Tech in New York.  Ward, who stands 6'6 and weighs 295 pounds, is a monster of a man, and seems to swallow up people in his path.  Another player that Beckman brought in was Joe Fotu.  Fotu came in at the start of the 2014 spring semester and participated in spring drills, so he is somewhat familiar with the types of schemes that Banks runs.  The key to the success for the Illini this year will focus on this defensive line, but the linebacking corps also returns quite a few players, which can do nothing but aid in securing the middle of the defense.

     Losing Jonathan Brown last season opened up a hole in the linebackers for the Illini, but they will have some key players back to help anchor the unit.  Leading the charge will be junior Mason Monheim, who has started since he was a freshman.  Monheim has gotten steadily better over the past two seasons, and is ready to take the next step and be a leader of the unit as a whole.  Another linebacker, T. J. Neal, a sophomore, really came into his own last season and has picked up right where he left off so far at Camp Rantoul.  During the first week of practice this fall, the Illini received some bad news when linebacker Mike Svetina sustained a foot injury and will be sidelined 8-10 weeks.  Hoping to step up in Svetina's absence will be Kenny Nelson, a junior, or Ralph Cooper, who is finally getting a chance to show what he is made of in his final season of eligibility.  The linebackers have not been the main issue on the defense over the past couple of years, and judging from the talent returning this season, they will continue to be one of the strong points.

     It has often been said that is your secondary leads the team in tackles, then something on the interior line is seriously amiss.  For the Fighting Illini in 2014, the secondary returns intact, and looks to improve even further than the strides that they took in 2013.  Leading the way will be V'Angelo Bentley, who will be one of the cornerbacks when the defense lines up August 30th against Youngstown State.  Other players of significance will be Caleb Day, Dillan Cazley, Zane Petty and Darius Mosley.  Day, who came on at the end of last season, tweaked a hamstring during the week of practice at Rantoul, and may be slowed as a result.  Petty, who came in last season as a juco player, looks to have another strong season, while Cazley and Mosley, both in their second seasons, both saw quite a bit of action last season as freshmen.  Other players that may draw some name recognition will be Eaton Spence, Jaylen Dunlap, and Chris James.  James, who was originally enrolled at Illinois until academics forced him to go the juco route, is back once again, and if he can keep his attention focused on academics intact, he may be a force to be reckoned with.

     Next week, the third and final installment of the preview will focus on special teams, as well as game week preview of the Youngstown State game (8/30, 11:00 am,  BTN).  Stay tuned!
 

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

It's that time again.......Football!

     On your mark.......Get set.......Go!

     With the beginning of August now upon us, it is once again time for football season, whether it be high school, college, professional, or youth leagues.  Football is the same pretty much at whatever level it is played.

     The Fighting Illini have begun preparations for the 2014 season, practicing the first week of their annual camp on campus, while balancing finals.  Now, the focus shifts to Rantoul, and their annual trek north to where the public (and media) can get a glimpse of the team and actually watch the team go through workouts.  Head coach Tim Beckman begins his third season at the helm, a season that many believe to be a pivotal one.
     Illinois is coming off of a 4-8 season in 2013, is looking to take that next step, which is obtain bowl eligibility.  In this, the first of three parts of the 2014 preview, I will look at the offensive side of the ball, from the guys up front to the ones in the backfield.

     The offensive line has been an area of concern in the past couple of years, mainly due to undersized and inexperienced players and not a lot of depth at the guard and tackle positions.  However, as the Illini head into the 2014 season, those questions seem to be rectified for the most part.  The center spot is pretty much set, as Alex Hill will snap the ball.  However, Joe Spencer could see some time at center as well, which would move Hill to a guard spot.  Speaking of the guards, Ted Karras and Michael Heitz look to be the frontrunners at the moment.  At the tackle position, Simon Cjivanovic has one of the spots nailed down, while the other tackle position seems to be a two person battle between Patrick Flavin and Christian DiLauro.  Beckman had a slight hiccup with the offensive line coach when A. J. Ricker left Illinois to take the same position at his alma mater of Missouri with just two weeks remaining in summer school.  That void was quickly filled when Tom Brattan was hired to replace Ricker.  Brattan spent the last twelve years at Maryland, which is now in the Big Ten.  Brattan brings a lot of experience to Illinois, and has bridged the gap nicely in his short time in Champaign.  The experience of the line that returns virtually intact from last season is a sigh of relief for Beckman, who has some depth on the line as well.

The quarterback battle has been one of the more talked about topics during the off-season, and now that training camp is upon us, we have actually been able to see all three of these guys in action.  Senior Reilly O'Toole brings experience to the position, while Aaron Bailey can move in the pocket and resembles more a runner than a passer.  However, the clear cut favorite for the starting job is probably going to be Wes Lunt, the sophomore transfer from Oklahoma State that played his high school ball at nearby Rochester.  Lunt brings a solid frame, plus an uncanny ability to throw the football, something that Illinois fans haven't seen in quite a few years.  Replacing Nathan Scheelhaase will be tough, but Lunt possesses the talent to take over and even exceed where Scheelhaase left off.  After the first two days of Camp Rantoul, it is becoming more clear who will be listed where on the depth chart.  Lunt is quite a ways ahead of O'Toole, while Bailey is quite a bit behind O'Toole.

Throwing the ball is something that Lunt does well, and he will have some new faces to get the ball to this season.  The normal players are still there from last season, in Justin Hardee and Martize Barr, but keep an eye out for several young players that could make a big splash once the season begins.  Freshmen Mikey Dudek and Malik Turner have opened many eyes thus far, and both should see quite a bit of action.  Dudek is small at only 5'11, but is lightning quick and should be able to break away from defenders provided he can catch the ball.  Turner is much bigger at 6'3 and 205 pounds, and comes from the powerhousae of Springfield Sacred Heart-Griffin, where he excelled.  Beckman brought in a couple of junior college players as well in Geronimo (Gmo) Allison and Tyrin Stone-Davis.  Allison is 6'4, and is pretty quick for his size.  He should fit in nicely in the rotation.

Also figurng in the mix for catching passes are the tight ends.  In offensive coordinator Bill Cubit's offense, the tight ends were a formidable option last season, and should see a similar load this season.  Returning are the two main pass catchers in Jon Davis and Matt LaCosse.  LaCosse caught three touchdowns last season, and has the potential for another huge season.  In addition to these two, Beckman brought in another junior college player in Dallas Hinkhouse.  Barr, Allison and Hinkhouse all played at Iowa Western Community College, giving that school a pipeline to Champaign with some good talent.

The running game returns virtually intact as well from last season, wih junior Josh Ferguson listed as the feature back.  Senior Donovonn Young had a sub-par season in 2013, but has had a good first week of camp and will look to bounce back this season.  Devin Church and Kendrick Foster, two of the younger players at the position, will also see considerable action.

Up next week, a look at the defensive side of the football, a concern that was very evident last season.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

New Kids On The Block: Getting To Know Rutgers and Maryland

     Effective July 1, the Big Ten Conference grew by two more teams to 14, a number that should be sufficient, at least for the time being.  The Scarlet Knights of Rutgers and the Terrapins of Maryland joined the ranks of the Big Ten, and with it, bring some storied history with them.  But how well do we know our new allies on the east coast?  Rutgers, which is in New Brunswick, New Jersey, is essentially in the metropolitan New York City area, a section of the country that the Big Ten has been wanting to tap into for quite some time.  The Scarlet Knights have been much more successful on the football field in the recent past than they have on the basketball court, something that rival teams in the conference do not want to hear.  The Rutgers football team, who is coached by Kyle Flood, finished the 2013 season at 6-7, including a 29-16 loss to Notre Dame in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium in the Bronx.

     Maryland, who hails from College Park, Maryland, is in suburban Washington, D, C,, another area that the Big Ten has been eyeing for several years.  The addition of both Rutgers and Maryland are a major reason that the conference is expanding their reach to take the Big Ten Tournament on the road, with the men's tournament scheduled for D. C, in 2017, and the possibility of Madison Square Garden in 2018,  The Terrapins, who are coached by Randy Edsall, finished 7-6 in 2013, and like Rutgers, saw their season end with a bowl loss, a 31-20 setback to the Thundering Herd of Marshall in the Military Bowl in nearby Annapolis, Maryland.  Maryland has a familiar face on its coaching staff, as Mike Locksley takes over as the offensive coordinator. Tom Brattan, who was not retained by Edsall, coached the offensive line at Maryland.  (more on Brattan later).

     With the start of fall training camp just a couple weeks away, Coach Tim Beckman is preparing his Illinois football team for the start of the 2014 season.  Beckman, who begins his third season at the helm of the Illini, is under close scrutiny, as he needs a greater level of success in order to see a fourth year, and that can be translated as getting to a bowl game.  Beckman saw his season start off on the wrong foot, as offensive coordinator A. J. Ricker left last week to take the same position at his alma mater, Missouri,  Ricker's departure was not the best in terms of timing, but you can't really fault him for wanting to pursue his dream job at the place where he played.  Tom Brattan, who had spent the past 13 years at Maryland coaching their offensive line.  The addition of Brattan makes this the fourth offensive line coach in four years for seniors Simon Cvijanovic and Michael Heitz.  They have seen Ricker (2013), Luke Butkus (2012) and Joe Gilbert (2011) during their tenure, and according to Brattan, he doesn't plan to go anywhere anytime soon.
"I have a reputation for staying in one place for long periods of time, as my recent tenure at Maryland shows", Brattan said on Wednesday, as he met the Illinois media for the first time as Illini offensive line coach.  Brattan previously coached at Northwestern in the mid to late 1990's, and wanted to make it known to young linemen like Nick Allegretti that he would be around for awhile.  "I told Nick and the other guys that I plan to be around a while, and they need to hear that, especially coming from me", Brattan said.

     Beckman also received some tragic news on Monday, as former lineman Shawn Afryl died of an apparent cardiac arrest after practice at Winona State University.  Afryl, who played in only one game for the Illini, in 2012, had received his degree from Illinois and transferred to Winona State to finish out his eligibility.  Beckman, who was visibly moved by Afryl's death, conducted a team meeting for anyone that wanted to talk about the situation.  "Anytime you have a death of a player, whether or not he is currently your player, it still hits home and he will always be part of the family", Beckman said.

     The Illini will begin the 2014 season with Big Ten Media Days in Chicago next week, with Cvijanovic, Jon Davis and Austin Teitsma representing the Illini this year.  Training camp gets underway on August 4th, with Camp Rantoul to follow a week later, beginning on August 11th,  The Illini open the 2014 regular season on August 30th when they host Youngstown State at Memorial Stadium for an 11:00 am kick/

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Swimming With The SEALS

     We have reached the point of the year where sports action in the collegiate ranks takes a bit of a break.  That is certainly not the case with the Fighting Illini men's basketball team, who have begun individual workouts.  The two newcomers to the team, LeRon Black and Michael Finke, are both on campus and enrolled in classes, and the remainder of the team that returns from last year are beginning their workouts as well.  With that being said, Coach John Groce put his team through the Navy SEAL training for the second consecutive year.  Last year, with nine newcomers to the team, Groce thought it would be a great team building exercise for everyone to gel and get to know one another.  It seemed to work out just fine last season, so Groce put his team through the four day program once again this week.  With Black and Finke the only additions to the team, the nucleus is there, and for Ahmad Starks and Aaron Cosby, two players who sat out last season due to transfer guidelines, the training was a little easier, but that doesn't mean that it was any less challenging.

     Starks, who is looking forward to getting back into the swing of basketball after sitting out last season, thought the training was very helpful.  "It gives up experience in team building, which is very helpful both on and off the court", Starks said.  The players are put through several rigorous activities, which they are expected to use teamwork to navigate certain situations.

      One such drill involved a boat (pictured above) that was filled with ice and water.  The players would take turns, one by one, by diving underneath each partition in the boat, then coming out at the end.  The purpose of the drill was to get fear out of the players' minds of jumping into a very cold environment.  The coaches, who numbered 8 bodies, challenged the players, who were 13 strong, to see who could do it the fastest.  When both groups completed the challenge earlier in the week, the players did it in 5 minutes.  The final morning of the challenge, they did it in under 2 minutes, which was astounding.  "The players calmed their fears, and completed the challenge in a much quicker time, because they were able to attack the fear of the water", Groce said of his players' improvement.  The coaches also took another attempt at bettering their time, and Groce's only request before they took their turn was "more ice".

     SEAL trainer John McGuire, who spent ten years himself as a Navy SEAL, goes all over the country with this program.  McGuire stresses the principle of getting people to become leaders, not only on the basketball court, but in the game of life itself.  "I want these players to realize that when they are 30 years old, or 40 years old, and they have a family and a problem comes up, they will know how to handle it by using these principles.

      Groce, who has had their team take this training for the last couple of years, thought they really improved from the start of the training until the end.  "There's no question that they got better from when they started, and John (McGuire) really has been instrumental in getting guys like Tracy (Abrams) and especially Starks out of their shell and becoming more vocal leaders", Groce said of the influence that McGuire has had on his players.

     Abrams, who has been a floor leader for the Illini the past couple of seasons, never has been the vocal leader for the team, but training like this can go a long way in changing that.  "I thought the training last season was a little bit harder that this year's, because we weren't as connected as we were this time around.  John (McGuire) makes you talk out here, and that not only character, but camaraderie as well", Abrams said of his experience with the training.

     It's no secret that the Illini have had adversity on and off the court this past off season, but they have had their fair share of success as well. Groce is a very integral part of that process, and his treatment of the Darius Paul situation further brings that point home.  Paul was dismissed from the team last spring after an altercation with Champaign police.  Paul, the younger brother of former Illini Brandon Paul,  will be attending a junior college to keep up his basketball skills, and still remains hopeful that he will rejoin the Illini next season.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Big 10?

     Normally, I use this space to blog about happenings and results of the various sports teams for the Fighting Illini.  I still fully intend to do just that, but first allow me to go off the beaten path and rant a little bit about what the conference has been doing to improve their image.

     On Tuesday, the Big Ten Conference announced that the 2017 Big Ten Tournament will be played at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.  Yes, that Washington, D. C., as in our nation's capital.  D. C., otherwise known as the center of the Big Ten markets.  Give me a break.  With the addition of Rutgers and Maryland to the conference on July 1st of this year, the Big Ten is striving to improve their presence on the East coast, and this is the latest in a series of events to make that happen.  Last month, the Big Ten established an office in New York City, and earlier this week, the Big East and the Big 10 agreed to form a challenge similar to the one that is shared with the ACC.  But why Washington D.C. you ask?  I'm not entirely sure why this location was chosen, since the only team this really benefits is Maryland, which is about 90 minutes away.  New York City makes much more sense as a rotation site, and I'm sure before long, that Madison Square Garden will be in the mix as far as hosting the tourney.

     Several questions arise with this decision, namely the travel issues for the competing schools.  Compute exactly how far the distance is from Lincoln, Nebraska to Washington, D.C. and you will begin to see what I mean.  The Big Ten has for years had a midwestern feel, and recent expansion has taken a little of that away.  We can't say that we didn't see this coming, because with all of the expansion in both east and west directions, the possibility of exploring other sites as tournament host was a foregone conclusion.  But what about Detroit?,  or Milwaukee.?   Heck, give Milwaukee or Cincinnati a shot at it, because at least they are driving distance for most fan bases and media to cover the games.  In the past, it has been a common occurrence for schools that lose on the first day to begin unloading their tickets for the rest of the tourney. Those teams that move on in the tournament, especially the fan bases within 3-4 hours of Chicago or Indianapolis, then converge on the venue hoping to scoop up tickets of the dejected fans leaving the arena.  This more than likely won't be happening at the Verizon Center, or eventually perhaps Madison Square Garden in the future.

     Basically, it all boils down to money, which is the main focus of the move east.  Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has done a phenomenal job as the leader of the conference, and with ventures such as the Big Ten Network, has lined the pockets of each institution in the conference as a result.  However, I'm not sure how the attendance will be for this change, but we have a couple of years to worry about that.  Maybe I'm just being a little selfish, since it has been a close drive for me over the past 10 years.  The switch to the east coast will no doubt be criticized by many, but as has been the result with Delany over the past few years, anything he touches turns to gold.  I'm sure this one will be no different.

     Now, back to the sports on the field.  The Fighting Illini baseball team finished off a perfect week, going 4-0, including a 3 game sweep of the Michigan State Spartans last weekend at Illinois Field.  The Illini were sparked by junior Casey Fletcher, who found himself in several game winning situations, and came through in the clutch in every single one of them.  Fletcher, who hit 3 home runs earlier in the week to beat Southern Illinois, hit 2 more against the Spartans, to help pace the Illini.  For his efforts, Fletcher not only received the Big Ten player of the week honors, but also garnered the National player of the week award as well.  Fletcher hit .471 for the week, with 10 RBI to go with those five dingers.  The Illini (27-17 overall, 13-5 Big Ten), jumped into a tie for second place with Nebraska, and will go on the road for the final two series of the regular season, starting this weekend with Iowa.  The Illini and Cornhuskers conclude the regular season in Lincoln against Nebraska, which could be an important series on many different levels.

     The Fighting Illini women's softball team finished off the regular season on a high note, sweeping Penn State in 3 straight games at State College last weekend.  The Illini, who enter this week's Big Ten Tournament with a subpar 23-25 overall record, and 7-16 in the conference, will face Iowa on Thursday afternoon at approximately 4:30 pm central time.  The women's softball tournament will be held in Evanston, and if the Illini get by the Hawkeyes, they will face top seeded Michigan on Friday afternoon.  Beginning with the quarterfinals on Friday, each of the remaining games will be televised on the Big Ten Network.  

Monday, April 14, 2014

     Been a while since I last posted, so here goes.

     Now that the Illinois football spring game is over, the focus can be shifted to the ongoing quarterback battle.  Or can it?

     It is no secret that the main topic of the spring football season has been the battle between the three quarterbacks on the Illinois roster.  All three candidates, Wes Lunt, Reilly O'Toole and Aaron Bailey have impressed head coach Tim Beckman with what each player does well, and Beckman is still not going to name a starter. at least not just yet.  There have been tons of speculation about who will be "the guy", with most throughout Illini Nation assuming that Lunt will be the one annointed when Camp Rantoul begins.

     But now that the spring game is in the rear view mirror, more questions abound regarding who will emerge.  Teams were picked for the game by a group of seniors each comprising of the Blue and the Orange team, and O'Toole made Lunt the first selection on the Blue team.  The Orange team countered with Josh Ferguson with their initial pick.  Everyone expected Lunt to start the game, but instead it was O'Toole that led the Blue team to two first quarter touchdown drives.  Beckman would have preferred each signal caller to alternate drives, but it was Alex Golesh's call, and Beckman was quoted afterwards saying "blame him for that move".  When Lunt did get in the game at the start of the second quarter, the first four plays were running plays, and Lunt's first pass was batted down, while the second one was intercepted.  Not exactly a stellar beginning for someone that has been referred to as the "savior of the program".  Now, those are not my words, but rather comments that I have heard throughout the spring practice sessions from fans and other types supposedly in the know.  It makes perfect sense to laud Lunt in this regard, but O'Toole's performance does open up some possibility that the decision has not been fully made yet.  Add in the scrambling ability of Bailey and the decision begins to get even tougher.  The Blue team totally dominated the Orange in the game 38-7, and some of the questions on defense are still there, much like they were at the close of last season.  This is Beckman's third season with the Illini, and many believe that it could be his last unless the Illini somehow make it to a bowl game.  Beckman has stuck his neck on the line by retaining defensive coordinator Tim Banks, and he believes that Banks is the right person to lead the defense.  The offensive line is still depth starved, something that also needs to change before the 2014 season begins on August 30th when Youngstown State pays a visit to Memorial Stadium.  But for now, Lunt and the rest of the quarterbacks will continue to battle and work out independently, hoping for a decision to be made as who will be the starter.  Just don't look for that announcement to come anytime soon.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team has sprinted off to a decent start to the 2014 season, and much of their success can be attributed to the pitching, which has been nothing short of spectacular this season.  After notching back to back 1-0 victories, the Illini ran into some problems as Michigan paid a visit to Illinois Field this past weekend.  The Illini got by the Wolverines on Friday by a 1-0 score, as Drasen Johnson and Tyler Jay combined on the shutout.  However, on Saturday, the Wolverines brought the hitting sticks, as they beat up on the Illini 17-9.  On Sunday afternoon, the Wolverines took the series with a 4-2 win.  The Illini end the weekend at 18-13 overall and 6-3 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Normal on Tuesday to take on Illinois State before departing for State College, Pennsylvania this weekend for a three game series against the Penn State Nittany Lions.

     Terri Sullivan's Illini softball team is in the midst of a five game losing streak, and are coming off of a three game sweep by Wisconsin over the weekend in Madison.  The Illini lost a pair of games by a 3-2 score, and also were downed 10-3 in the other game against the Badgers.  The Illini are slumbering along, now 18-18 overall and just 2-10 in the Big 10.  The Illini will welcome the Blue Demons of DePaul on Wednesday afternoon to Eichelberger Field for a non-conference game, before heading to West Lafayette, Indiana this weekend to battle the Boilermakers of Purdue.

     Finally, this week marks the official re-branding of the athletic programs by Nike, something that has everyone associated with the program quite excited about.  It has been a long time since the logo and the uniforms were updated, and with Nike being the primary sportswear outfitter for the Illini, as well as many other schools, the time has come for Illinois to get their brand updated.  The event, which is free, will be held on Wednesday evening in the Great Hall of Krannert Center for the Performing Arts on campus.  Some of the athletes from both the mens' and womens' basketball teams, as well as the football team, will be modeling the new digs.  People attending the event did need to get a ticket ahead of time, and it there were any that were unclaimed by I-Fund donors, they were to be offered to the general public on a first-come, first-served basis.  Stay tuned for the new logos.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

On to the postseason

     They call it March Madness for a reason.  The Illini, pretty much written off as a lost season a month ago, have seen their season take an abrupt turn for the better, all thanks in part to better play on defense and a lineup change that wasn't the worst thing to happen either.  Since a 48-39 loss to Ohio State back on February 15th, all Illinois has done is win five out their last six games, including the last five away from State Farm Center.  The only loss in that streak was a blowout loss to Michigan (more on the Wolverines later), 84-53 on Senior Night.  The insertion of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to the starting lineup has given the Illini new energy, and the players that they replaced, Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand, have been embracing their new roles coming off the bench.  Nunn and Hill, both freshmen, have been a huge lift to a team that will be playing some sort of postseason, the question is which tournament will they in?  Conventional wisdom points to the NIT, but there is still an outside shot (and I mean an NBA level shot) of getting in the field of 68 and the NCAA Tournament.  After Illinois' win at Iowa last Saturday night, they finished the regular season at 18-13 overall and 7-11 in the Big Ten, not great numbers, but much better than the season was looking just one month ago.  In fact, it took a last season shot by Ekey to defeat the Hawkeyes, and with it, loads of confidence heading into the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.  The Illini drew the #9 seed and faced Indiana, the #8 seed in the first game of the tournament on Thursday.

     The Illini and Hoosiers split the 2 games in the regular season, with the Illini winning 83-80 in overtime on New Year's Eve, while losing 56-46 back in January in Bloomington.  The Hoosiers came into the game with the Illini at 17-14 overall and also 7-11 in conference play, and needed a win over the Illini to boost their postseason chances.  Illinois jumped out to a quick 9-0 lead on Indiana, but the Hoosiers clawed back to take several leads on different occasions.  Tracy Abrams, who has had a disappointing second half of the Big Ten season, came up huge for the Illini, scoring a season high 25 points, and just missing his career best by 2 points.  The Illini lived to see another day by defeating the Hoosiers 64-54, and for that, a chance to rematch with Michigan on Friday in the first quarterfinal of the day (11:00 am CT, ESPN).  Rayvonte Rice scored 13 points, while Nunn knocked in 10 for the Illini, who improve to 19-13 with the win.  Not to get too far ahead of ourselves, but another win in the tourney may open up the possibility of the Illini being mentioned as one of the teams on the proverbial NCAA "bubble".  Technically speaking, they probably have to get to the championship game on Sunday and even win the tourney outright to have a realistic chance, but is fun nonetheless to speculate, because as a media member, that is what we do.  Indiana,who falls to 17-15 overall with the loss, was led in scoring by Kevin (Yogi) Ferrell, who had 14 points.  Will Sheehey added 13 points, while freshman Troy Williams scored 11 for the Hoosiers, who outrebounded the Illini by a 35-32 margin.  As is the motto for this time of year, survive and advance, and the Illini know that firsthand.

     The season came to a very disappointing end last week in Indianapolis for the Illini women, as they were defeated 81-62 by the Iowa Hawkeyes, putting a cap on their season at 9-21 overall.  This isn't what Coach Matt Bollant envisioned when he took the job, but then again, the talent level wasn't very good when he came to Champaign.  Whatever the case, it is something to build on, as they only lose Amber Moore this year.  Bollant has a good recruiting class coming in next year, and with it, a chance to get up into the top half of the Big Ten.  It was pretty much an uphill struggle this season for the Illini ladies, and the fact that they finished the season with consecutive losses to the Hawkeyes certainly didn't help.  That is what Bollant hopes to build on for next season.

     The spring sports schedule has started at Illinois, and both the men's baseball and women's softball teams have been playing their southern trip games for the better part of a month now.  The baseball team is off to a 6-7 record, but that includes 2 wins over nationally ranked Florida.  The Illini are scheduled to take on Southern Illinois this weekend at the new Itch Jones Stadium, but weather may force the cancellation of those games.  The Illini host Indiana State next Tuesday in a game that the weather could also factor into.  Oh the joys of living and playing in Illinois in March.

     The softball team is off to a surprisingly fast start this season at 12-6, after an 8-0 start.  They haven't played as well lately, but that doesn't mean that they aren't slacking off.  The Illini are set to host the Illini Classic this weekend at Eichelberger Field, a tournament that includes St. Louis, North Dakota State, Omaha and Western Michigan.  There will be four games on both Friday and Saturday, before the Illini open up Big Ten play next weekend against Iowa.

     Finally, a special shout out goes to Illini wrestler Jesse Delgado, who won the Big Ten title at the 125 pound weight class last weekend at the Big Ten Championships in Madison, Wisconsin.  Delgado, by virtue of his title, received the #1 seed in the upcoming NCAA Championships to be held next weekend in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.  Besides Delgado, the Illini qualified 7 other wrestlers into the NCAA's,  Those being as follows:  Zane Richards (133), Steven Rodrigues (141), Zac Brunson (157), Jackson Morse (165), Tony Dallago (174), Nikko Reyes (184) and Mario Gonzalez (197).