Turmoil At The Top

Turmoil At The Top
Interim Head Football Coach Bill Cubit is introduced to the media on Friday afternoon following the firing of Tim Beckman

Saturday, August 29, 2015

     Normally in my weekly blog entry I go around the campus with the different Illini sports that happen to be going on at that particular time.

     This is not one of those times.

     This entry is a special edition, based solely on the events surrounding Friday afternoon when everything in the football program took an unexpected turn with the sudden dismissal of head coach Tim Beckman.

     I had gone out for a walk at lunchtime like I normally do, and when I came back in, I checked my email like always, but on this day, something grabbed my attention in my inbox.  At first I thought it was a joke that someone was playing, but as soon as I saw who it was from and started reading the body of the email, I quickly realized that it was no joke and that this was really happening.

     In the email press release, it stated that Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas had dismissed Beckman for what he called findings within the program that essentially led to Thomas making this decision.  It was no secret that the athletic department had been under scrutiny for the past few months when it was alleged that coaches in the football, women's basketball and women's soccer programs had mistreated players either mentally, or  not disclosed injuries or didn't treat players in a manner that was beneficial to their rehabilitation.

     The first such claim came from former Illinois lineman Simon Cvijanovic, who claimed that Beckman forced him back from an injury earlier than expected, and that surgery that he received was not consistent with what he needed.  At first, when these claims surfaced, people in the media thought it was just a case of a former player waging a battle against Beckman, and using social media as his platform.  But, these recent findings gives the situation a bit more credence, and who knows where this will lead.

     Beckman amassed a 12-25 record at Illinois in his three seasons at Illinois, but went just 4-20 in the Big Ten with one bowl appearance, the 2014 Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  However, Thomas insisted on Friday that the removal of the coach had nothing to do with on-the-field activity, but instead based on the findings of the preliminary report.  Thomas would not go into any further detail about it, either.

     Thomas named offensive coordinator Bill Cubit interim head coach for the 2015 season, with a base salary of $515,000 and an increase of $100,000 each month until the end of the football season.  Cubit has been a head coach before at Western Michigan, where he compiled a 51-47 record.  Ironically, it was Cubit who Beckman defeated in his first game coached at Illinois, a 24-7 win on September 1, 2012.

     Cubit is much more media friendly, and seems to know what he is doing, judging from the way the offense has looked over the past couple of seasons.  But a rash of injuries to key players such as Mikey Dudek, Dre Brown, Justin Hardee and Reggie Corbin over the past few months has severely depleted the depth that Illinois expected to have as this season began.

     The timing of Thomas' move was especially bad, given that the Illini begin play this coming Friday night against Kent State (8:00 pm, BTN), but Thomas stated that it was better to make the move now before the full report with the findings were publicly released.

     With all of the scrutiny that the University has been experiencing lately, with the chancellor first resigning, then being basically dismissed, followed by the provost stepping down from his position as well, things do not appear to be on solid ground.

     Many have suggested that Thomas be the next to be shown the door, but he has claimed that it will be his duty to hire the next football coach after the current season comes to a close.  When Thomas as hired, he came in right away and fired Ron Zook, Bruce Weber and Jolette Law within a span of four months, and this hire would be his second, which many in Illini Nation do not want to see happen.

     So, how did we get in this mess in the first place?  Beckman has never been what you call "media savvy", and his constant missteps in front of the microphone have led to ridicule nationwide.  His callout of media back in February about being more positive towards the program rubbed some the wrong way, but our job in the media is to report the facts as they are, not be a cheerleader for the coach or a staff.

     So, enough about Beckman, he is no longer the coach, and it is time for Coach Cubit to lead this program, at least for the forseeable future.  This year can go one of two ways:  either the Illini rally around their new coach and return to a bowl game, or they will continue down the current path, which will ultimately lead to a new staff and a fresh start once again.

     Whatever outcome plays out, one thing is clear, it will be an interesting journey.

Monday, August 24, 2015

     Finally, some good news to report concerning Illinois sports,

     In a summer that has seen much turmoil and disappointment in Illinois athletics, it was a breath of fresh air to finally see something positive play out.

     On Monday afternoon, something that was long overdue finally came to fruition, the basketball court at State Farm Center being named in honor of Lou Henson.  Henson, who coached the Illini from 1975 until 1996, remains a legend in Champaign, and now he has the honor of the court to go along with it.

     Henson, who has been battling health problems the past few months, was in attendance at the event, which was held inside the 77 Club at Memorial Stadium.  With State Farm Center renovations still ongoing and not ready yet, the most logical venue was across the street in a facility named for another Illini great, Red Grange.  Henson wore a mask and rubber gloves upon entering the room, but once he was announced, he took them off and addressed the crowd in attendance,

     This was not a normal press conference, but instead a celebration to honor Henson and his wife Mary, who split time between Champaign and Las Cruces, Nevada, where coincidentally, Henson also has a court named in his honor.  Due to his health concerns, he cut the celebration short and was due to go to a treatment shortly after his visit with family and friends.  There will be an official ceremony the night that State Farm Center reopens for 2015-16, when Notre Dame will pay a visit to Champaign in the Big 10/ACC Challenge,  The court, which will also be used in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center for the first five games while State Farm Center finishes its makeover, will be moved and unveiled on December 2nd, the evening of the Notre Dame game.

     A fitting honor for a great man, and it is wonderful to finally see it happening, and even better that he gets to see it happen in person.

     Camp Rantoul wrapped up for the Fighting Illini football team, and the injury bug keeps on biting Tim Beckman's team.  If the recent injuries of the past few weeks were not enough to give Beckman grey hairs, the loss of freshman running back Reggie Corbin will certainly cause the silver to fly.  Corbin was probably a good choice to redshirt anyway this season, but another running back down means that the depth at the position is even thinner than before.  So much that Beckman has been employing cornerback V'Angelo Bentley in the backfield on certain formations.  Freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn is back to full contact, and has looked fairly confident in early workouts.  The offensive line was a major question mark the past couple of seasons, but some stability and added depth has given the position a much needed boost.

    With senior Ted Karras returning from an injury to anchor the line, the Illini will look to players such as Joe Spencer, Christian DiLauro and Chris Boles to step up their game and provide protection for quarterback Wes Lunt.  A true freshman, Gabe Megginson, could see action this season, but the coaching staff would prefer to redshirt him and get him even stronger for next season.

     The receiving corps have looked good as well thus far, particularly two true freshmen, Sam Mays and Desmond Cain.  Mays, who could pass for an identical twin of Geronimo Allison from the outside, can move very well, and Cain, who is a bit smaller, could provide the extra punch that the Illini need to do some damage to opposing defenses.

     Speaking of Lunt, he will need to stay upright this season if the Illini have any chance of repeating their bowl appearance of a year ago.  Lunt, who has had a history of injuries dating back to his days at Rochester High School, has the arm strength to play at the next level, and with several weapons at his disposal, could have a breakout season if he can remain in action all season long.  Plus, if Lunt does happen to go down with an injury, the backup situation is not the best, with Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. waiting in the wings.  Both Crouch and George have never taken a snap in a college game, so the experience factor is not strong.

     The Fighting Illini women's soccer team has begun their season, and are off to a good start on the young campaign.  The Illini defeated Oakland 4-1 this past Friday night, behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  Flaws also assisted on another score, and is showing why she is a force to be reckoned with this season.  On Sunday afternoon, the Illini traveled to Normal to face Illinois State and came away with a 1-0 victory on a goal by Reagan Robishaw.  Flaws also assisted on that goal, giving Janet Rayfield's team an early 2-0 start to the season.  The Illini will be back in action this coming weekend, when they welcome TCU to the Illini soccer complex on Friday evening and then will take on St. Louis Sunday evening.  Both games are slated for a 7:00 pm CT start.

     Next week, I will look at the defense and special teams as the season opener draws closer.

Sunday, August 9, 2015

     So, how was your summer?

     I can venture a guess that it was somewhat better than what the University of Illinois experienced over the past few months, most notably the athletic program.

     It has been a tumultuous summer for Illinois and several of its programs, and the hits just, as they say, keep on comin'.

     Let's rewind back to early June where the Fighting Illini baseball team was making history by advancing to the Super Regional of the NCAA Tournament and a series win over defending champion Vanderbilt would have given the Illini their first ever trip to the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska.

     But instead of taking pride in that accomplishment, which they did, the word began to break about mistreatment of injuries within the Illinois football program, stemming from former Illini lineman Simon Cvijanovic.  In Cvijanovic's claims, he stated that the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury, and actually went in and did something that they were not instructed to do, or so he claims.  When news of this broke, suddenly several former teammates of Cvijanovic's came forward to issue similar claims.

     This is not the news that Illinois football coach Tim Beckman needed for his program, which begins its fourth season with Beckman in command.  Illinois is already dealing with several injuries to key players as it is, especially sophomore sensation Mikey Dudek, who sustained an ACL injury during spring workouts.  Dudek, who garnered all-Big Ten freshmen honors last season, set the freshman record at Illinois for receiving yards, and was expected to be a key component for Beckman and the Illini as they looked to capitalizing on last year's bowl appearance in Dallas.

     Beckman has seen the Illini win total increase from 2 to 4 to 6 in his 3 years in Champaign, but to make that jump on the scale to the next level, which is 8, will take some major undertaking, and also a whole lot of luck.  With the likes of Nebraska, Wisconsin and Ohio State coming to Champaign this season, the Illini need to get out to a quick start in the non-conference portion of the schedule before the Big Ten season starts in earnest with the Cornhuskers visit.

     As if the football allegations were not enough, about a week or so later, news broke regarding alleged racial bias and verbal abuse within the Fighting Illini women's basketball program.  These claims led to assistant coach Mike Divilbiss being terminated, apparently a mutual agreement between he and the university, and raised even more questions into the program and their head coach Matt Bollant.

      Bollant, who had a very successful run at Wisconsin-Green Bay before coming to Illinois 3 years ago, has not seen the success that he envisioned in coming to Champaign, and apparently, it was Divilbiss that may have been the wedge into this problem.  The claims led to several current and former players getting together and filing a lawsuit, which this past week was found to not be credible by the attorney handling the case.  The players still remaining on the team leave for an overseas trip this week and will look for some time away to regroup as a team and get back to basics.

     The news continued to get worse for the Illinois sports landscape a couple weeks ago when it was announced that senior-to-be Tracy Abrams sustained an achilles injury in a non-contact drill in practice preparing for their overseas trip and will miss yet another season for the Illini.  Head coach John Groce seems beside himself over several injuries to key players, and Groce, who will enter his fourth season as coach of Illinois, begins a pivotal season that could either make or break his future at Illinois.

     It has been no secret that Groce has had some difficulty landing a point guard for the 2015-16 season, and the loss of Abrams magnifies that void tenfold.  Also dealing with injuries are freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands, who was one of Groce's marquee recruiting gets since he has been at Illinois, and Darius Paul, who has had issues of his own since he has been an Illini.  However, a bit of good news on that front happened Saturday, when Groce received word that fifth-year transfer Khalid Lewis announced that he will play at Illinois this upcoming season.  Lewis, who last played at LaSalle, is not a flashy player, but he is a another body, and a point guard that Groce sorely needs right now.  

     As if all of this wasn't enough for a summer, earlier this week came perhaps the most shocking announcement of them all.  University of Illinois Chancellor Phyllis Wise announced that she is resigning from her position, effective Wednesday, August 12th.  This came as a complete shock to many at the university, and with the recent scandals within the athletic department and also around campus with various hiring practices, Wise seems to have had enough.  More information is still coming out regarding this latest debacle, and this may not bode well for athletic director Mike Thomas, who reports to the Chancellor.

     New university president Timothy Killeen, who accepted Wise's resignation, may have had some factor into the decision, and who knows where this will lead in the next couple of months.  Killeen has said that he could have an interim chancellor named within the week, and if that person doesn't have strong athletic ties or a keen interest in sports, things could get very interesting around campus in the next few months, especially with the major revenue sports.  Stay tuned.

     Back to football for a minute if I may.  The Fighting Illini have begun fall training camp with the first three days closed to the public in Champaign.  The Illini will move to Rantoul for the next two weeks of training camp on the former Chanute Air Force Base, where all of the practices will be open to the public.  So, if you are wanting to check out Tim Beckman and the Illini, Camp Rantoul will be the place to be starting Sunday, August 9th.  A full schedule of practices can be found at www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link.  Over the next couple of weeks, I will be previewing the Illinois season by groups, culminating with an expanded look at the season leading up to the home opener, which is set for 8:00 pm CT on Friday, September 4th against Kent State.

     Yes folks, Fighting Illini football is back, and if anyone needs some good news right now, it is coach Beckman and the Illini.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Uncharted Waters

     What a season this has been for the spring sports teams at the University of Illinois.  From the historic season that the baseball team is having, to both the mens tennis and golf teams once again achieving elite status in the NCAA Tournament, it truly has been an enjoyable few months on campus.  Well, almost, but more of that later after the good news.

     Heading into the 2015 baseball season, there was some kind of a sense that this Illinois team would be better than in past years, mainly due to a stellar pitching staff combined with a veteran lineup that has been together for a few years.  They have not disappointed in either category this season thus far, as they have compiled a 45-6-1 record to date, including a 21-1 Big Ten mark and a school record 26 straight wins dating back to April.  Much of the success during this record-setting streak can be attributed to the starting pitching of Kevin Duchene, Drasen Johnson and John Kravetz, not to mention the exceptional relief pitcher in Tyler Jay.  After a rainout last Friday evening, the Illini welcomed Rutgers to Illinois Field for a Saturday morning/early afternoon doubleheader, and once again, the Illini did not disappoint, sweeping the Scarlet Knights 5-4 and 6-2.  Highlighting the afternoon as hitting stars was catcher Jason Goldstein and outfielder Casey Fletcher, who continued their good hitting on the season.  Former Big Ten player of the week David Kerian was also instrumental in the sweep, as was brothers Ryne and Reid Roper.  In the series finale on Sunday, nobody expected to see what they did.  After Illinois fell behind on two separate occasions by 4 runs, Dan Hartleb's squad exploded for an 11 run eighth inning to destroy Rutgers 28-13, the most runs scored by an Illini team since the 2004 season (a 32-0 win).  The Illini continued their homestand to close out the regular season by hosting Nebraska in what amounted to a pair of games.  The final game of the series against the Cornhuskers was finally called due to rain on Saturday afternoon.  Four innings were played before the rain came and eventually amounted in a cancelled game.  Illinois will begin the Big Ten Tournament as the top seed and will face eighth seeded Nebraska on Wednesday evening at 5:00 pm from Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  All signs point toward Illinois hosting an NCAA regional, which would be next weekend at Illinois Field in Champaign.

     Mike Small and the Illinois mens golf team is also having a spectacular season, and are fresh off a tie for the regional crown at the Sagamore Club in Noblesville, Indiana last weekend.  The quintet of Nick Hardy, Thomas Detry, Brian Campbell, Dylan Meyer and Charlie Danielson finished four under par, which was good for a first place showing alongside SMU.  Illinois, who needed to finish in the top 6 to ensure themselves a spot in the NCAA field, did much better than that in bringing home the hardware.  The NCAA championships will be held May 29th - June 3rd at the Concession Golf Club in Bradenton, Florida.

     Not to be outdone was the mens tennis team, who qualified for the NCAA team championships by winning their own regional over both Louisville and Drake.  Unfortunately for coach Brad Dancer, the dream of a national title fell short as they were defeated in the semifinal round by North Carolina in Waco, Texas.  The Illini were seeded #4, but were upended by the #13 Tar Heels, thus ending their season a bit prematurely.  The Illini return a nucleus of players back next season, so the prospects of an Illinois team making a return trip to the tournament seems very likely.

     Just four short seasons ago, the University of Illinois mens track and field team was in a downward spiral and had just lost Tonja Buford-Bailey, who took her talent south to the University of Texas.  Buford-Bailey, who was the Illini womens coach, also helped out with the mens team, and her absence was thought to be a huge loss.  But Mike Turk has turned this program around and this past weekend, captured the Big Ten title in East Lansing.  This win by the track team has capped off an unbelievable spring sports season, boasting four conference championships.  The track team is led by senior D. J. Zahn, who won an individual title in the 400m.  The NCAA Championships will be held in Eugene, Oregon, with the West Prelims to be staged May 28-30 in Austin, Texas.

     As much good news with all of the success of the spring sports teams comes with some not so good news, dealing primarily with the football and women's basketball teams.  Last week it was revealed by former offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic that there was some mistreatment in the medical staff, specifically dealing with his injury that ultimately ended his season.  Cvijanovic broke the story last Sunday via Twitter, and since his allegations, there have been several other former players come forward with similar concerns.  There is an ongoing investigation into the matter to determine whether or not there were any rules broken.  Then, exactly a week later, it was reported that several families of former Illinois womens basketball players have accused head coach Matt Bollant and other assistant coaches of misconduct as it pertains to injuries.  Taylor Tuck, Amarah Coleman and Taylor Gleason are the main focus in this particular investigation.  As a result, assistant coach Mike Divilbiss has mutually agreed to part ways from the program, and effectively resigned as a result.  These two instances are casting a very encompassing shadow on a very bright sports season.  Who knows what will happen with either of these situations, or who is right or wrong?  One thing is clear however, in that this will probably not go away any time soon.  Stay tuned for more information as it becomes available.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Spring Forward!

     What a spring it is shaping up to be on the University of Illinois campus.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to an historic start to the season, compiling a 31-6-1 record, good for a #11 ranking in the country. Stellar pitching, timely hitting, and an exceptional relief pitcher have combined to give the Illini record crowds at Illinois Field this season  Starters Kevin Duchene and Drasen Johnson have anchored a pitching staff that is one of the best in the Big Ten conference, if not the nation, while Adam Walton, Casey Fletcher and brothers Reid and Ryne Roper have given the pitchers quite a bit of run support.  However, the crown jewel of the Illini would have to be closer Tyler Jay, who almost assuredly will be a first round draft choice in the next draft.  Jay has compiled a miniscule 0.71 ERA in 38 innings this season with 43 strikeouts.  Jay is that rare player that can finish a game with zest, but also be called upon to start or go in long relief if needed.  The Illini will host Eastern Illinois on Tuesday evening (6:00 pm CT) before embarking on a stretch of games that will take them away from Illinois Field for the next two weekends.  The Illini will continue Big Ten play this coming weekend when they travel to State College, Pennsylvania to battle the Penn State Nittany Lions.

     After an auspicious start to the season, Terri Sullivan's Illinois women's softball team has turned around their season by winning nine out of their last 10 games, and currently have a 21-22 record on the season, with a 10-5 conference mark,  A lot of that success lately can be attributed to the pitching of Jade Vecvanags, who has compiled a 15-9 record.  Also helping the cause has been Alyssa Gunther and Allie Bauch, who both are hitting near the .400 mark.  The Illini defeated Wisconsin 12-8 and 5-3 on Saturday, and will play a mid-week conference doubleheader on Wednesday when they travel to Evanston to take on the Northwestern Wildcats ( 2:00 pm, BTN).

     Injuries have been the name of the game for Tim Beckman and the Fighting Illini football team during spring workouts, with two of their top players that were expected to contribute out for the forseeable future.  Freshman Mike Dudek, who had a record-setting first season for Illinois last season, sustained an ACL injury in a non-contact drill and will be sidelined at least through October.  To add further insult to injury, early enrollee Dre Brown, who figured to get quite a bit of work behind senior Josh Ferguson this fall, also was lost to an ACL tear, but on Saturday at the annual Spring game, Beckman stated that it might not be as serious as your typical ACL injury.  Still, an injury is an injury and it was not something that Beckman had bargained for.  Due to the amount of players out for the Spring game, special rules were put in place for the game.  First of all, the White team, which was comprised primarily of backup players, was given a 17-0 lead out of the gate, and when the Orange team, mostly starters, came back and led 27-17 at the half, the White team was given 17 additional points.

     Due to the shortage of players at several key positions, some of the defensive linemen donned blue jerseys and played on both sides of the ball.  Beckman can ill afford to lose any more players, because depth is an issue at several spots, and although there are a few players coming in the fall that will help alleviate the gap, it is still a concern,

     ?Obviously it was tough to lose Mikey and Dre, but with the guys we have coming in the fall, we should be fine.  Injuries are just a part of the game, and although we lost both players on non-contact drills, we never considered cancelling the game for any reason", Beckman said after the Spring game on Saturday.  The Illini will resume workouts later this summer with their annual trek to Camp Rantoul.  Illinois will kick off the regular season on Friday night, September 4th under the lights at Memorial Stadium against the Golden Flashes of  Kent State University.

     Finally, even though the Fighting Illini men's basketball season ended on a very discouraging note, all hope is certainly not lost.  Head coach John Groce had never experienced a collapse like the one his team embarked on at the end of the season, and one knew that changes were coming as a result.  Sure enough, Austin Colbert, who was beginning to come on at the end of the season, announced last week that he would be transferring out of the program.  However, this past weekend, Groce received a commitment from Charlotte transfer Mike Thorne, who can come and play immediately.  Thorne brings a strong inside game to the Illini that should replace Nnanna Egwu adequately.  Groce still is in search of a point guard, and is still very much in the running for Marcus Lovett from Morgan Park Academy in Chicago, or possible another fifth year transfer in guard Dylan Ennis of Villanova.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

     Welcome to the postseason, or as Illinois head coach John Groce calls it, the "third season".  The Fighting Ilini completed the regular season ths past Saturday and although they could have used a win to bolster their NCAA Tournament resume, the opposite result happened, as they dropped a 63-58 decision to the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Indiana.  The Illini finished the regular season with a 19-12 record overall, with a 9-9 Big Ten mark.  The game started out very well for the Illini, as they jumped out to a quick 15-2 lead before Purdue knew what hit them.  Illinois kept up that intensity for the majority of the first half, only to see the Boilermakers close the gap to 26-21 at the half.  In the second half, Purdue took over, as they dominated early and often in the second stanza to get a double digit lead of their own.  Illinois made one last gasp at the end of the game, but it was a little too late, and they couldn't catch the Boilermakers.  A win would have given the Illini 10 conference wins, but more importantly, the 7th seed in this week's Big Ten Tournament at the United Center in Chicago.  Instead, the Illini find themselves in a familiar spot, the 8th seed, and will face an opponent that they know all too well, Michigan (11:00 am CT Thursday, BTN).  Illinois and Michigan split their two games this season, with the Wolverines winning in overtime 73-65 in Ann Arbor on December 30th, and the Illini returning the favor on February 12th in Chamnpaign 64-52, also in overtime.  This will be the rubber match between the two schools, with a quarterfinal date with top-seeded Wisconsin awaiting the winner on Friday morning.  It has been an interesting season for Groce's Illini team, with all of the injuries and other off the court issues plaguing the team this season.  Michigan has had a tough season of their own, currently sitting at 15-15 overall, and 8-10 in the Big Ten.  The Wolverines have been beset with injuries as well, losing two of their more prolific scorers, Caris LeVert and Derrick Walton Jr. for the remainder of the season.  Illinois cannot stand to make an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament if they want to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.  Even a win over the Wolverines doesn't guarantee a berth, but if everything falls right, it could still be a possibility.  Illinois is 0-1 at their home away from home, the United Center, losing earlier in the year to Oregon 77-70.

     With March upon us, it will soon be time for spring football.  Illinois coach Tim Beckman begins his fourth season as the head man in Champaign, and this should be his deepest team in his tenure.  The Illini finished the 2014 season with a 6-7 record, losing to Louisiana Tech in the Zaxby's Heart Of Dallas Bowl.  Quite a few players return on defense for the Illini, which was a little better last season than the year before.  Beckman has stressed that depth is still an issue at several key positions, and that has been addressed further by more junior college transfers.  With the coaching staff still not complete, Beckman has filled one of the positions by hiring Mike Phair, who formerly coached in the NFL with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair brings with him some credibility with working with defensive players, and will give Tim Banks some flexibility as he becomes co-coordinator with Phair.  Spring workouts begim on Saturday, March 14th, and will culminate with the annual spring game on Saturday, April 18th at 5:00 pm.

     On the topic of football, the University of Illinois announced on Monday that the first home game of the 2015 season has been switched to Friday night, September 4th instead of the following day.  Game time has yet to be announced, but expect it to be in the 7-8 pm time frame.  Even though this will interfere with high school games that evening, Beckman still thinks that this is a good idea.  Only time will tell if they made the right decision.

     The Fighting Illini baseball team is off to their best start in a long time, and have stormed out to a 12-3 record and ranked #19 in this week's poll.  A lot of the early season success can be attributed to the pitching staff of Drasen Johnson, Kevin Duchene and Tyler Jay.  The Illini won a series this past weekend in Stillwater, Oklahoma against the Oklahoma State Cowboys, and returned home on Tuesday afternoon for their home opener against Chicago State, a game that they also won by a score of 7-3.  The Illini will keep the homestand going this weekend when they begin a three game series against the Salukis of Southern Illinois.

     The Fighting Illini women's softball team has started off their season on a not-so-good note, currently with an 8-15 record.  The Illini finished off a 1-4 trip to Los Angeles, California this past weekend, losing to UC-Davis, Providence, and #13 UCLA in the process.  The Illini will begin Big Ten play next weekend at Eichelberger Field in Champaign against Minnesota, with games beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, 1:00 pm on Saturday, and noon on Sunday.

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Stretch Run

     Welcome to "Crunch Time", that point in the college basketball season when teams jockey for position to either better themselves for the upcoming NCAA Tournament, or give their all in just missing out on the big dance.

     The 2014-15 Fighting Illini basketball season will go down as one that has had a lot of twists and turns, as well as ups and downs.  First of all, before the season even started, head coach John Groce found himself without two of his key players that he hoped would contribute to the success of the team.  Tracy Abrams tore his ACL and was lost for the season, and Darius Paul found himself in some legal trouble for off the court incidents and was dismissed from the team.  Abrams is set to return for the 2015-16 season after taking a medical redshirt, while Paul also plans on returning to Illinois after transferring and playing at a junior college in Texas this season.  Injuries have been the name of the game this season, and when senior Rayvonte Rice went out just after the first of the year after fracturing his non-shooting hand in a practice drill.  Then, to make matters worse, Aaron Cosby, the transfer from Seton Hall, sustained an eye injury against Indiana and was lost for a few games as well.  Both Rice and Cosby were then suspended by Groce for a violation of team rules, and while Rice has since been reinstated, Cosby has not and has been advised by Groce to take some time away from basketball to work on some things. It was announced on Friday afternoon at Groce's press conference previewing Michigan State that Cosby and the Illini have parted ways.  Apparently it was a mutual decision while the Illini work on finishing the season and Cosby will transfer to another school once he finishes up his degree this semester.  Got all of that?

     So, Rice was out a total of 9 games, and in that span, the Illini went 6-3 without him, much better than anyone anticipated.  During that span, Illinois defeated Maryland at home and went on the road to defeat Michigan State.  The win over the Spartans was especially gratifying because it gave the Illini some extra momentum on an already three game winning streak, plus added a quality win to their NCAA resume.  Even though the Illini lost at Wisconsin last Sunday 68-49, they still are in good position to make the NCAA Tourney provided that they can hold serve at home, and maybe steal one on the road for good measure.

     Standing in the way will be the Spartans, who make the return trip to Champaign on Sunday evening to play the Illini (6:30 pm CT, BTN).  It seems that the Illini woke Michigan State up with their defeat in East Lansing because since that game, the Spartans have played much better and are once again resembling a Tom Izzo coached team.  The Illini are 17-9 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, and still are in the mix of the logjam that is the middle of the pack in the conference race.  With the Big Ten Tournament just 3 weeks away, there still is a lot to play for, and in order to stay out of the bottom four of the league and have to play on Wednesday, the Illini need to finish strong.

     The Illini women's basketball team has struggled mightily as of late, and not because of a lack of talent, but for some unfortunate circumstances in which they have lost games by a close margin.  After upsetting Ohio State last week, the Illini ventured out to Piscataway, New Jersey to battle Rutgers for the first time ever, and came away with an 80-56 loss, their worst loss in the last 5 games.  The Illini are now 13-14 overall on the season, but just 4-11 in the Big Ten, and will travel to Purdue on Saturday for their final regular season road contest.  The Illini will end the season at home for the final two games before heading up to Hoffman Estates to the Sears Centre for the women's Big Ten Tournament the first weekend in March.

     Finally, closing this week's blog with some football news.  Quarterback Aaron Bailey, who was determined to play the position at Illinois and after several chances to move to another position where he would see action on the field, has decided to transfer to another school to finish out his eligibility.  Bailey was the backup to both Lunt and O'Toole this past season, and after O'Toole graduated, Lunt will undoubtedly be the starting quarterback once spring workouts begin next month.  Redshirt freshman Chayce Crouch may be named the backup and Bailey, who didn't wish to switch positions to see the field, is better suited going elsewhere.  Also, Tim Beckman hired a co-defensive coordinator in Mike Phair, who has a coaching resume primarily in the NFL, the last of which was with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  Phair will coach the defensive line, a spot vacated when Greg Colby was fired last month.