Swimming with the (Navy) SEALS

Swimming with the (Navy) SEALS
This boat filled with ice and water is just one activity that Navy SEAL training is composed of

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).

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Signs Of Encouragement

     Beware folks, because this Fighting Illini men's basketball season just got a bit more interesting.  Left pretty much for dead 3 weeks ago, head coach John Groce decided to shake up his starting lineup, and the results have been astonishing at best.  Freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill were inserted into the lineup 6 games ago, and during that stretch of games, the Illini have gone 4-2, including the last 3 in a row being wins.  A winning streak is the last thing that this team would have expected given the rough road that they have faced in the Big Ten season this year.  But, the defense has stepped up in a huge way, holding their opponents to under 50 points in the last 3 games, something that hasn't happened since 1947.  The latest takedown:  #18 Michigan State on Saturday in East Lansing, a 53-46 win that has once again given life to the Illini's postseason hopes, and has also breathed a bit of optimism into Illini Nation.  Dare to dream?  Why not!  After all, the Illini are playing some of their best basketball in this latest stretch, and the addition of Nunn and Hill to the starting lineup has given the team new life.  Not to discount the players that they replaces, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, who are beginning to play a little better and are accepting their new roles as best as they can.  Bertrand was in a funk mid-season, and the steady shooting of Ekey has come back a little bit after going by the wayside earlier.  Illinois (17-12 overall, 6-10 Big Ten) looks like a totally different team as of late, and the thoughts are there that if they win out in the regular season and maybe steal one or two in the Big Ten Tournament, they could still get an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.  But before I get accused of drinking the orange and blue kool-aid, there still is a lot of work to do in order for that scenario to happen.  First of all, they need to win on Senior Night at the State Farm Center on Tuesday night against Michigan (6:00 pm CT, ESPN), then win yet another road game on Saturday at Iowa.  Then, and only then, they can worry about winning enough games in the Big Ten Tournament to boost the resume.  Speaking of the tourney, this year's edition should be one of the more balanced ones yet, and the possibility is definitely there of any team running the table and capturing the automatic bid to the big dance.  Yes, that includes Illinois, who is now perceived as a dangerous team with all of their recent success.  Whatever happens these final 2 weeks, it has given plenty of optimism for the rest of this season, and especially into next year.

     As far as things go on the women's side, the picture is not nearly as rosy, quite the opposite in fact. Matt Bollant's team has limped into the postseason, losing their last 10 games, and not winning since January 23rd, the Illini ladies finished dead last in the Big Ten, and hosted Senior Day on Sunday afternoon at the State Farm Center in Champaign.  A couple of positives can be taken out of the loss to Iowa.  First of all, they only honored one senior, Amber Moore, meaning that the rest of the team will remain intact for next season.  Second, Ivory Crawford scored her 1000th point in the game against the Hawkeyes, which is an impressive feat for anyone.  The Illini lost the game to Iowa 81-56, and finish the regular season with a dismal 9-20 overall record and a mark of just 2-14 in conference play.  For this, the Illini received the 12th seed in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins Thursday at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, and will play on Thursday against #5 seed Iowa at approximately 1:30 pm central time.  The Illini should know the Hawkeyes' tendencies well, since they just played them.  It certainly hasn't been easy for Bollant this season, and I am sure that he did not expect this when he took the job and left Wisconsin-Green Bay, where he was virtually unbeatable.  Hopefully Bollanr can catch lightning in a bottle and make a run in the Big Ten Tourney, but given the way things have gone for them this season, that seems very unlikely at this point.

     Spring football is officially here, with practice beginning on Wednesday, and this promises to be a big year for coach Tim Beckman, who begins his third season at the helm of the Illini program.  It is also a make-or-break year for him, since the program needs some success in order for him to continue.  Athletic director Mike Thomas has made it clear that he wants to see the Illini programs compete for Big Ten titles, and he has given Beckman time to formulate his staff in order to get that done.  That makes 2014 a pivotal year for Beckman and his staff, and wins, not to mention a bowl bid, will go a long way in keeping them in Champaign beyond next season.  The Illini will hold 2 practices that will be open to the public, with the spring game being set for Saturday, April 12th at 2:00 pm.  An updated practice schedule can be found by going to www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

One Hit Wonders?

     Maybe these freshmen can play after all.

     Faced with a must win situation last Sunday in State College, Pennsylvania, Fighting Illini head coach John Groce decided to shake up his starting lineup, one that he had used the entire season to date.  That lineup included two freshmen, Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill, players that had been consistent as of late, and piqued Groce's attention.  With the Illini on an eight game losing streak and losing momentum fast, Groce felt the time was right for the change.  What followed was pure genius, as Illinois prevailed, defeating the Penn State Nittany Lions 60-55, ending the losing streak and breathing some signs of life back into the program.
Nunn had a career high 19 points, while Hill was the only other Illini player in double figures with 11/  Nunn had been playing better as of late, while Hill has been steady for most of the season.  All 10 players that saw action played double figure minutes, something Groce wants to do more of, provided that the players respond.  "It's up to the players to make that decision", Groce said on Tuesday in a teleconference recapping the win over Penn State.  Groce continued by saying that "I hope they (Hill and Nunn) aren't one-hit wonders.  I've listened to a lot of 80's music over the past few days, and there are a lot of one-hit wonders in there, and I hope that Malcolm and Kendrick can build upon their performance".  Seldom used Austin Colbert put forth a good effort, as did fellow freshman Maverick Morgan in spelling Nnanna Egwu, who only played 2 minutes in the first half due to being in foul trouble.  The Illini (14-10, 3-8), now will head to the other side of the conference border Wednesday evening when they take on the Nebraska Cornhuskers at their new home, Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln (8:00 pm CT, BTN).  Nebraska is currently 12-10 overall and 4-6 in the conference standings, but have only lost once at home this season.  The Cornhuskers are having a resurgence of sorts under second year coach Tim Miles, one of the more colorful coaches in the league.  Nebraska has three transfers that see plenty of action, Terran Petteway, Walter Pitchford and Leslee Smith.  Nebraska has defeated Ohio State and Indiana at home, and their only loss in Lincoln came against Michigan, and that was by a single point.  Bottom line is, this is a much different Nebraska team, one that is capable of beating anybody on any given night.  For the Illini to get a winning streak going, they will need to do more of what they did against Penn State, and the freshmen will once again have to step up and play like veterans.

     Second year women's coach Matt Bollant is having a difficult time stringing wins together, and at times, it can get downright frustrating.  The Illini lost for the 6th time in 7 games 66-61 last Sunday to Minnesota at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, and as a result, dropped them to 2-9 in the conference standings and 9-15 overall, something Bollant is not used to.  While he was at Wisconsin-Green Bay, he won consistently, and it appears that it may take a bit longer to turn the Illinois program around.  The Illini program has been down in recent years, and while Bollant is bringing some talented recruits into the fold, the results are just not there right now.  To make matters worse, Mackenzie Piper announced that she is leaving the program, effective immediately.  The Illini will get another chance to break the losing streak on Thursday night when they travel to Iowa City to battle the Iowa Hawkeyes (8:00 pm CT, BTN).

     With Fighting Illini football on the horizon, they are scheduled to begin practice early next month, including a couple of off-campus appearances.  The Illini will travel to Chicago to conduct a practice at Gately Stadium on Friday, March 14th, while also making a trip to Springfield to practice at Sacred Heart-Griffin High School on Friday, April 4th,  Both practices will begin at 5:30 pm.  The full spring practice schedule can be found by visiting www.fightingillini.com and clicking on the football link.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

A Crazy Mixed Up Season

     The fears of many are finally being realized.

     The Fighting Illini men's basketball team saw their losing streak reach six games last Sunday afternoon, when they were defeated by the Indiana Hoosiers 56-46 at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana.  Once again, the Illini played capable of winning the game, but couldn't come through in the clutch.  It's time to face the facts that this is not a very good shooting team, no matter how you look at it.  In the loss before to Ohio State (62-55 last Tuesday in Columbus), Illini junior Rayvonte Rice was held without a point for the first time in his college career.  The way the Illini played against the Buckeyes, they could have won the game had Rice been on his game and made some of his shots.  Fast forward to Sunday against the Hoosiers, where Rice regained his lost touch, by scoring 20 points and grabbing 4 rebounds. During this streak, the Illini have failed to capitalize on the things that they were successful in during the non-conference portion of the season.  Or, is it simply that other teams have learned how to defend the Illini, and are using that strategy?  Whatever the case may be, the Illini are in grave danger of finishing last in the Big 10 for the first time in nearly 30 years.  The conference has been anything but predictable this season, with multiple upsets happening all over the league. For instance, on Wednesday night, Penn State went into Columbus and handed Ohio State their fifth loss in six games in overtime.  The lone win for the Buckeyes in that stretch?  Yep, you guessed it, the Illini.  In the late game on Wednesday evening, Northwestern continued its mystery by upsetting Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, a place where many teams don't win very often.

     So, what does all of this mean?  The upcoming Big Ten Tournament should be very balanced, and with the exception of Michigan and Michigan State atop the league standings, the rest of the conference is very comparable to each other.  The Illini need a win more than anything, and they have a couple home games in a row in order to right the ship.  The first chance comes on Saturday evening, when they welcome the Iowa Hawkeyes to the State Farm Center (6:30 pm CT, BTN). The Illini are currently 13-8 overall, and are at the bottom of the Big 10 standings at 2-6.  The Hawkeyes are one of the better teams in the league this season, but as recent history has shown, anybody can beat anyone on any given night.  This could either get more interesting, or spiral down into disaster.

     After a couple recent wins, the Illini women's basketball team has once again begun to struggle, as they are playing teams close, but like their counterparts on the men's side, are having trouble closing games out.  The Illini lost to Purdue last Monday evening at the State Farm Center 80-68, and the Boilermakers obviously have the Illini's number, as they have beaten the Illini regularly for the past several seasons.  On Thursday night, the Illini ran into a hot shooting Ohio State team in Columbus, and were defeated 90-64 to drop their record to 9-12 overall and 2-6 in the Big 10.  Matt Bollant's team will jump back into action this weekend when they welcome Indiana to Champaign on Sunday afternoon (1:00 pm CT, No TV).

     With football national letter of intent signing day just a week away, the talk of football is once again in the air.  The DIA opened up the quarterbacks that are vying for the job that was vacated by the departure of Nathan Scheelhaase, and let each of them speak to the media on Wednesday afternoon.  Senior Reilly O'Toole, sophomore Aaron Bailey, and transfer Wes Lunt are all in competition for the position, and it remains to be seen who is the clear cut favorite.  Odds are with Lunt, since he started as a freshman at Oklahoma State before leaving to transfer to Illinois.  But Bailey and O'Toole each have their strong points as well, so when spring practice begins in a few weeks, all eyes will be on these three signal callers.  Also, in football news, Corey Lewis announced on Thursday that he played the entire 2013 season with a torn ACL, but didn't say anything to anyone about it.  Lewis is a remarkable person, not only on the field for his perseverance, but also off the field, and is very candid about all of his previous injuries.  He is still planning on pursuing an NFL career, and I hope he is successful, because you couldn't wish it more for a person than him.