Oh no, not again,

Oh no, not again,
For the second consecutive season, Mike Dudek will be sidelined with an ACL injury.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Deja Vu

     Things were beginning to take a positive turn for the Fighting Illini football team.  New head coach Lovie Smith had assembled his coaching staff, finally started spring practice, and the team was beginning to show signs of respectability since they were getting some of their key players back from injuries a year ago.  Well, almost.

     Almost a year to the day that he first tore his ACL in a non-contact drill, Mikey Dudek suffered the exact same injury to the exact same knee in the same type of drill, non-contact.  This young man, who is ultra-talented, cannot seem to catch a break, and will once again watch another football season from the sidelines as he once again recovers from surgery.

     The list of injuries to Fighting Illini athletes has grown to a number that is almost laughable, and between football last season (Dudek, Dre Brown, Teko Powell, Reggie Corbin), men's basektball (Tracy Abrams, Leron Black, Mike Thorne Jr.) and women's basketball (Cierra Rice), one would have to wonder what is going on at Illinois, and what have they done to the athletic gods?

     Dudek's latest injury comes at a time when the Illinois football program was undergoing an idenity transformation under Smith, and with a roster that is thin to begin with, the loss of Dudek clouds an already uncertain 2016 season.  After all, this is considered to be a rebuilding project for Smith, and this further complicates things, at least for the short term.

     As far as spring practices go, the first one, held a week ago last Friday, was very scripted and didn't look like it was the first one.  Lovie has the Illini looking somewhat sharp, and the cast of characters that he has brought in as assistants give him instant credibility.  Garrick McGee, who was previously at Louisville, was brought in to run the offense and Hardy Nickerson, who was an all-ro linebacker in his days in the NFL, is the defensive coordinator.  The Illini will continue to practice this coming week, and the public's first and only chance to see the Fighting Illini in action will come n Saturday, April 16th with an open practice.  Smith decided against a spring game due to the late start of spring practice, so an open workout will take the place of it.  The practice will begin at 1:00 pm, and will be free to the public.

     Both the Illinois baseball and softball teams have entered Big Ten play, and the results have been mixed for both squads.  The Illinois baseball team is finding life after Tyler Jay and the other players that propelled them to the NCAA Super Regionals last spring rather difficult.  The Illini just completed a series at Iowa against the Hawkeyes, and lost two out of three games to fall to 13-16 overall and 4-5 in conference play.  The Illini will return home this Tuesday evening to face the Illinois State Redbirds (6:00 pm CT first pitch).  The Illini defeated the Redbirds 8-3 earlier in the season in Normal, and after the game on Tuesday, will welcome the St. Louis Billikens to Illinois Field for a rare three game series not conference related.

      The Fighting Illini softball team has enjoyed some success this season under new coach Tyra Perry, and are currently 23-15 overall, but just 3-6 in Big Ten play.  Illinois dropped a three game series to Minnesota this past weekend in Minneapolis, and will return home on Wednesday night to face Northwestern in a mid-week conference doubleheader.  After the games against the Wildcats, the Illini will make the short trip east to battle the Purdue Boilermakers this coming weekend in West Lafayette.    

 

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.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Waiting........Waiting

     It has now been three months since Mike Thomas was fired as athletic director of the University of Illinois, and whereas a decision on his successor is imminent and could be announced any day now, the athletic teams continue to struggleas a result.

     The frontrunners are still there, so to speak, alrhough it appears that Rick George is pretty much out of the running and Criag Tiley claims that he's never been formally contacted by campus officials.  That leaves Josh Whitman and Tom Michael as the other candidates, and while both are former athletes that are currenly leading institutions in the midwest, their interest in the position remain high.
     Whitman, who is at Division III Washington University in St. Louis, has done a great job at that small school, and would be a viable leader at the next level.  Michael is currently at Eastern Illinois and if you have been reading the news lately, is in some tough financial waters due to the state's continued fiscal woes without a budget.

     I've heard a lot of differing opinions over the past few weeks about these and other candidates, and nobody for sure, with the exception of the Board of Trustees, really know what is going on, and sometimes, I wonder if even they have a clue.

     What I do know is, the news could break any day, and when it does, you can be sure that I will be on top of it, like usual.

     Bill Cubit had his first Signing Day class announced last week, and even though there are not a lot of studs in the class, there are some positions of need that were addressed.  As is common with coaching changes, Cubit has seen his fair share of players leave the program, most notably, T. J. Neal, who would have been one of the stalwarts at linebacker.

     A lot of these players that left were recruited by Tim Beckman, and now that he is gone, they feel the need to move on and play somewhere that they are comfortable.  Cubit has also brought in some new coaches to the staff, and one such coach, Jeff Hecklinski, is a former Illini quarterback that has some big visions upon his return.

     It seems that John Groce cannot catch a break, and I use that term loosely.  Groce's mens basketball team has been riddled with injuries this season, a huge part of their 11-13 overall record and 3-8 mark in Big Ten play, but it seems that the injury bug is not just affecting current players, but ones that aren't even on campus yet.

     I was privileged to see recruit Te'Jon Lucas and his Milwaukee Washington team take on Champaign Centennial last Saturday night at Parkland College, and for three quarters, Lucas looked like the real deal and the point guard that Groce has had such trouble landing.  However, in the fourth period, Lucas was going up for a shot when he was cheap-shotted and fell to the floor.  He had to be carried off the court, and it was later revealed that he broke two bones in his foot, thus ending his senior season.  Groce was present at the game, and immediately went over to assess the situation.  

     You can kind of feel for what Groce is going through, and his luck of players getting hurt borders on the unimaginable.  When the new AD is hired, they will look at the full body of work, like they do with all coaches, and I hope that the injury issue is looked at carefully.  That doesn't mean that the new hire won't want to make a change and bring in his own person, but if he does get let go, then everything goes back to square one and you risk losing recruits for not only this coming season, but for 2017 and beyone as well.  Groce and company have made some inroads in the 2017 class, landing Javon Pickett out of Bellleville and working with others as well.  A potential change could derail all of that if they are not careful.  Who knows what will happen.

     On the womens side of things, the situation is not much better, in fact, it is getting worse.  Head coach Matt Bollant has seen his team lose 14 out of their last 15 games after a 7-1 start, and at 8-15 overall and 1-11 in conference play, has got to be feeling some heat as well as the new AD hire looms.

     Bollant was successful at his previous stop, Wisconsin-Green Bay, and everyone expected him to come to Champaign and get the dormant program back on its feet.  However, with the scandal over the summer and early fall that led to the dismissal of assistant Mike Divilbiss, they have never really recovered and are treading water as their season begins to wind down.  One bright spot, center Chatrice White, continues to play well, and just imagine what she could do if she had some other players of the same caliber around her.  But, it all starts with recruiting, and maybe the pundits are correct in saying that you can't build a program at Illinois.  With all of the insecurity going on in the athletic program, who would want to come here?

     Finally, as if the athletic program doesn't need any more bad publicity, it was revealed earlier this week that softball player Ruby Rivera was charged with damaging property on campus.  It seems as if most of the athletic programs on campus have some sort of issue going on with them in some way, shape, or form, and when the new AD does in fact, get hired, he or she will have quite a chore to get things back to respectability.  If that even is possible.


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.

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.