Rock Bottom?

Rock Bottom?
As the picture shows, you will know it. Question is, has it already been felt?

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.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

End Of The Line?

      As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, a few items on the Illinois horizon appear to be eerily familiar, while others have taken either a turn for the better or worse, depending on how you see things.  Don't catch my drift?  Allow me to elaborate.

     First of all, the Fighting Illini football team is once again in a familiar situation, and that is needing a win in their final "home" game against Northwestern to become bowl eligible.  The game, which will be played at Chicago's Soldier Field, was the brainchild of both Tim Beckman and Mike Thomas, both of whom are no longer employed at the university.  The latter hired the former, which was clearly a grave mistake, leading Thomas to be shown the door about 3 months after Beckman himself was fired.  The reason that was given for moving the game up to Chicago for a "home" game was to appease the donors in the city and suburbs because every other year, the IHSA football playoffs alternate between Champaign-Urbana and DeKalb, and this was a year when the championships were in DeKalb.  Sooooooo, now there is nothing going on in C-U this weekend, which is bad for businesses like restaurants and hotels.  Plus, Illinois is hosting Senior Day festivities up in Chicago, which makes absolutely no sense to me as well.  The players apparently voted for this, since quite a few of them live within striking distance of the city and welcomed the chance to have their honors bestowed upon them in an NFL environment.

     It's no secret that the Illinois-Northwestern game last year at Ryan Field was a poor draw, as was the last game in Champaign two years ago, so a change in venue was a viable option.  With many of the students that attend the university hailing from the suburbs anyway, it would be an easier trip for them to make.  Truth is, many of them don't even attend when they are blocks away in C-U, so why would they make the trip some 40 minutes or so to the lakefront to watch the team play?  The university needs to figure some things out, as they are still in turmoil because there is no permanent athletic director in place, and interim coach Bill Cubit is politicking for the job for next season.

     Which brings us to the actual game on Saturday (2:30 pm CT, ESPNU).  Illinois needed a win in their last two games in order to become bowl eligible for the second straight season, and they couldn't get the job done last weekend against Minnesota in Minneapolis, losing 32-23 to the Golden Gophers.  Even though the Illini have remained somewhat competitive in their losses, a loss is still that, and they can ill afford to have another one.  One bright spot is that there may not be enough 6-6 teams to fill bowl slots, so the possibility exists that a 5-7 team could go bowling.  This tells me two things:
1) there are too many bowls now, and 2) you get rewarded with 15 extra practices for a bowl for a losing record.  Cubit has done a great job holding this team together despite all they have been through, and the injuries have taken a toll throughout the season.  At his weekly press conferences this season, Cubit has remained steadfast that he would like to continue at the controls, but maintains that it is not his decision to make.  Cubit is an all-around good guy, and personally, I would like to see him stay another season to bridge the gap between he and the next coach.  After all, he is 62 years old, and I don't see him wanting to do this for very much longer.  Plus, with no full-time Chancellor or athletic director, time is closing in, especially with all of the other jobs that are open, or could become open once the regular season is finished this weekend.  We shall wait and see what happens on this subject, as some movement could come as early as next week.

     Another Mike Thomas gem of a decision was to move the first five games of the 2015-16 Fighting Illini men's basketball season to the Prairie Capital Convention Center in Springfield, since the State Farm Center is finishing the current renovation phase, and now that the "experiment" in Springfield is complete, the results are in, and they are less than adequate.  I was able to make it over to one of the games, and came away less than impressed about the experience.  The PCCC is much smaller, and didn't feel like a home court atmosphere.  The Illini finished their residency in the state capitol 2-2, although they trailed for a good majority of the time, even in the games that they won.  Add a close loss to Providence on the road, and Illinois sits at just 2-3 overall, leading many to speculate just how warm the seat the John Groce sits on will get if the present situation continues.

     The losses, to North Florida and Chattanooga, were bad, and the way that the Illini played in those games did not help the unease of the fan base, many of which are in the mode of not caring.  Even in the wins over North Dakota State and Chicago State, the Illini trailed late, before making comebacks on both occasions to win the game.  As a matter of fact, it took a three-pointer by freshman Jalen Coleman-Lands at the buzzer to defeat Chicago State 82-79 on Monday night.  A loss to the Cougars would have set the Illini at 1-4, their worst start since 1906, and would have set outrage by Illini Nation.  The loss at Providence was actually their best performance of the season, and if Michael Finke gets his follow-up slam of Malcom Hill's missed layup to fall, all of a sudden maybe the season gets looked at a bit differently.

     Groce does have some leverage for an excuse, with injuries to three of his top players that were expected to compete for a bulk of the playing time.  Tracy Abrams, Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate are all out, with Nunn and Tate expected back within the next couple months.  Sophomore Leron Black is also coming back from an injury as well, and while he has played sparingly, is not totally back, and it shows on the court.  Once Groce gets his arsenal of players back, roles and rotations will change a bit, and hopefully, so will the results on the court.

     Illinois now continues the Florida portion of the Emerald Coast Classic, where they will play UAB on Friday night (8:30 pm CT, CBS Sports Network), and then depending on the outcome of that game, will play either Iowa State or Virginia Tech on Saturday (TBA, CBS Sports Network).

     Matt Bollant's women's basketball team is also feeling the effects of not playing in the State Farm Center, but they played their home games much closer to campus at Parkland College, and so far, the results have paid off.  Bollant's crew is off to a 4-0 start, including a 98-43 romp over Tennessee State on Tuesday evening at Parkland.  The Illini have hit the 90 point plateau three times this season, including the exhibition game, and will play their first true road game next Wednesday evening when they travel to Coral Gables, Florida to face the University of Miami (6:00 pm CT).  After the trip to Florida, the Illini will play 6 of their next 8 games at the newly renovated State Farm Center.

     Finally, Kevin Hambly's Illinois volleyball team begins to wrap up the regular season portion of the schedule on the road, first taking on Nebraska in Lincoln on Wednesday evening (7:00 pm CT), before completing regular season play on Friday in Ann Arbor to face Michigan (5:00 pm CT).  The Illini are 19-10 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten, so a pair of wins to finish strong will do a lot for Illinois and their quest for an NCAA Tournament invite.

     Happy Thanksgiving everyone!!

Thursday, November 12, 2015

The 'I' Stands For Interim

     We knew this day was coming, it was just a little surprising when the news broke.

     Much like the day that Tim Beckman was fired last August, one week before the 2015 football season began, it came as a relatively small shock when news broke early on Monday morning that University of Illinois Athletic Director Mike Thomas was let go, and in his place, interim (remember that word, because it will be used as nauseum in this blog entry) AD Paul Kowalczyk was named by interim (there's that word again) Chancellor Barbara Wilson.

     In addition to having an interim football coach in Bill Cubit, who really doesn't know what will happen to his fate until the end of the season, there is also an interin Provost at the University of Illinois, leaving many to speculate as to what direction the athletic department will go in the naming of some of these positions to take the venerable 'interim' tag off.  In order to hire a new football coach, there has to be a Chancellor in place to hire an AD, which in turn will hire the new football coach.

     Confused?  You're not alone.  Since August, there seems to have been news weekly in the athletic circles at the U of I, and it's rather amazing that all of this was concocted by a series of tweets by a former football player that we thought was just venting from his dislike of Beckman and the way that he was treated.

     Thomas. at the press conference announcing the change at the top of the athletic department, was lauded by Wilson, and appeared to do nothing wrong except one thing, the hiring of Beckman as head football coach.  It is evident without a doubt that the hire was a colossal mistake, and the fallout of everything since that fateful day can be linked to it.

     Cubit, who is an all-around good guy and a pleasure to talk to, because he tells it like it is, could possibly get hired as the permanent football coach, but that will probably be dependent on how the rest of the season goes.  As far as recruiting goes, there is quite a bit of indecision right now, and a recruit will not want to come to Illinois if there is not a stable situation, which is what is happening right now.

     Oh yeah, there was a game last Saturday, amidst all of the happenings off the field.  Illinois snapped a three game losing streak in a big way, throttling the Purdue Boilermakers 48-14 last Saturday at Ross-Ade Stadium in West Lafayette, Indiana.  Just one week after getting it handed to them at Penn State 39-0, the Illini welcomed back Josh Ferguson to the offense, and he immediately made an impact, rushing 12 times for 133 yards, while catching 6 passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.  Ferguson's return made freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn that much better, as Vaughn scampered for 180 yards on 16 carries and two scores.  The spike in offensive performance is a welcome sight, but they will need to continue it in a much larger way if they plan to knock off their next opponent, the Ohio State Buckeyes this coming Saturday (11:00 am CT. ABC).

     The Buckeyes (9-0, 5-0) are coming in as the #2 team in the nation, and are currently on a 22 game winning streak, dating back to last season, when they won the 2014 National Championship.  However, the Buckeyes have won a couple games by a slim margin, and are coming off a 28-14 win over the Minnesota Golden Gophers last Saturday in Columbus.  The Buckeyes have been in the news recently for some off-the-field incidents involving their star quarterback J. T. Barrett.  Out of the three signal callers that head coach Urban Meyer has at his disposal, Barrett gives them the best chance on a weekly basis, although Cardale Jones and Braxton Miller are not bad options either.

     The Illini (5-4, 2-3) have nothing to lose against the Buckeyes, and if the unthinkable happens, which is an Illinois win over the Buckeyes, then the head coaching job should be given to Cubit immediately after the game.  Hands down.

     Now begins the time of the crossover in sports on the University of Illinois campus, and men's and women's basketball begins with the regular season openers this coming weekend.  Due to construction being wrapped up at the State Farm Center, both teams are forced to begin their regular seasons on the road, so to speak, with the men playing in Springfield at the Prairie Capitol Convention Center, and the women beginning in Champaign, only at Parkland College.  John Groce's squad will play North Florida on Friday evening (7:00 pm, ESPN3) and North Dakota State on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm, ESPN3).

     Wednesday was signing day, and Groce inked one player in Te'Jon Lucas, a point guard from Wisconsin.  Lucas fills a void at the position and ends a long recruiting battle trying to find someone to bring in after several near misses.  Groce also announced at the press conference that Kipper Nichols has also signed, but will not be able to play until late in the fall of 2016.  Nichols originally committed to Tulane and had enrolled there, but only stayed two weeks before leaving, and that action has caused him to have to sit out the duration until he is eligible to compete.

     Matt Bollant's women's squad will begin play at Parkland against Chicago State on Friday night (7:00 pm), and then turn around to host Ohio University on Sunday afternoon (2:00 pm).  The first game in the newly renovated State Farm Center is scheduled to be the Big 10/ACC Challenge game on December 3rd against the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame.  Should be a pretty tough ticket to obtain.

     Bollant signed four players, including Ali Andrews, Brandi Beasley, Courtney Joens and Sarah Overcash.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini volleyball team continues toward the culmination of their season, and after stringing four victories together, they dropped a match against the Ohio State Buckeyes in Columbus on Wednesday night.  Illinois will return to Huff Hall on Saturday night when they welcome Rutgers to Huff Hall.  Illinois will also host Wisconsin next Wednesday night.  Currently, the Illini are 17-9 overall and 8-7 overall.

     Not much going on for a week, eh?

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Now What?

     The injuries continue to pile up for Bill Cubit's Fighting Illini football squad, and the latest to fall victim is Henry Enyenehi, who is supposedly out for this weekend's game at Purdue (11:00 am CT, BTN).

     In what was a dismal showing last Saturday at Penn State, the Fighting Illini did next to nothing, and the end result was a 39-0 shellacking at the hands of the Nittany Lions in State College, Pennsylvania.  Up until this game, the season was showing signs of promise, and Cubit was beginning to endear the hearts of Illini Nation as a possible successor full time to Tim Beckman, who was let go one week before the season began this year.

     Now, all of that seems moot, as the Illini slog their way into West Lafayette to battle a Boilermaker squad that had their best offensive showing of the season last Saturday in defeating Nebraska 55-45, just the second Big Ten win in the Darrell Hazell era at Purdue. The other conference win for Hazell was last year in Champaign, so the Illini will have revenge on their minds when they battle on Saturday in an attempt to win back the Cannon trophy, the artifact that the two schools play for each time they take the field.

     With Enyenehi's injury, that essentially leaves freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn as the only healthy player in the backfield, although it remains to be seen if senior Josh Ferguson will return to action this weekend.  Ferguson took part in practice on Wednesday, but a final decision won't be made until sometime on Thursday before the week's injury report is released to the media.

     It is a wonder that quarterback Wes Lunt is still healthy and actually a good thing, because if he wasn't, there's no telling how this Illinois team could put a formidable team on the field.  Lunt has a diminished group of receivers as well to throw to, with both Mikey Dudek and Justin Hardee out of action, and if not for Geronimo Allison, Lunt would be forced to run the ball himself, which he does not do well at all.

     I guess it all boils down to this:  with many players out of action for whatever reason, Cubit has to put a team on the field and hope that they can grab some magic as the season begins its homestretch run.  Illinois (4-4, 1-3) still has aspirations to go to a bowl game, but they still need two wins in order to even become eligible, and probably really need three of the last four games in order to feel good about postseason hopes.  With Purdue, Ohio State, Minnesota and Northwestern still left on the schedule, Throwing out the Ohio State game (for obvious reasons), the Illini still have a chance to win the other three games.  Only the Buckeyes game is in Champaign, so they will need to be road warriors in every sense of the phrase if they plan to be playing past Thanksgiving weekend.

     After a rough stretch of matches, Illinois volleyball head coach Kevin Hambly feels optimistic that his team can rebound and do what they need to in order to reach the NCAA Tournament.  The Illini got off to a good start this past weekend, by defeating Michigan State (3-1) and Michigan (3-0) at Huff Hall in Champaign.  Then, on Wednesday night, the Illini ventured up to Evanston for a mid-week matchup with the Northwestern Wildcats.  The Illini won the first set, and dropped the next two to go down 2-1.  The Illini won the fourth set and the deciding fifth set by a 16-14 score to take the match 3-2.  With the win over the Wildcats, the Illini improve to 16-8 overall and 7-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will return the favor this weekend when they host the Wildcats on Saturday evening (7:00 pm CT, No TV).

     Janet Rayfield's Illinois women's soccer team wrapped up regular season play last week, and just sneaked into the Big Ten Tournament as the #8 seed, which gave them a first round matchup at Penn State last Sunday.  The Illini were defeated by the Nittany Lions 3-1. to finish their record heading into the NCAA Tournament selection at 10-6-3 overall and 4-4-3 in conference play.  Illinois will await their fate and hope that their resume is good enough to get one of the bids for the tournament.

     With November on the horizon, it is nearing time for both the mens and womens basketball teams to begin action, and since the State Farm Center is not quite ready for its tenants yet, the two teams will be playing on the road for the first few games.  The men will call the Prairie Capitol Convention Center home through the end of November, and have their first and only exhibition game on Sunday when they play Illinois-Springfield/  The women will be playing at Parkland College and they will also be starting play soon.  The State Farm Center is scheduled to be ready in time for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge on December 2nd when Illinois hosts Notre Dame.

     That's all she wrote for this week, folks.  Hope there are no more injuries to the football team between now and the next blog post.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Survival Of The Fittest

     Another close game.   Yet another injury, which lately seems to be the norm rather than the exception.   This can be daunting on a head coach, interim or not.

     Illinois (4-3, 1-2), which seems to continue giving teams good games, but ending up on the short end of the stick, finds themselves in familiar territory as they head east to Happy Valley to visit Penn State.

     The Illini, who fell victim to Wisconsin last Saturday 24-13 in their annual Homecoming game at Memorial Stadium in Champaign, had their chances against the Badgers, but with an ailing team on both sides of the ball, bodies are getting thin in number.

     The latest to be sidelined is tight end Tyler White, who appears to be out for the remainder of the season.  White joins a growing list of players that have seen their last action of the season, including Mikey Dudek, Jamal Milan, Teko Powell, Dre Brown and Patrick Nelson.  Add to that the injuries of Josh Ferguson, Marchie Murdock, and Justin Hardee, the medical staff is keeping very busy this fall.

     In the loss to Wisconsin, freshman Ke'Shawn Vaughn continued to impress, as he was the only running back to carry the ball, rushing 13 times for 55 yards and a touchdown.  Vaughn, who has been pressed into extensive action with injuries to Ferguson and Brown, has utilized his opportunity nicely and is making the best of it.  Wes Lunt, who remains healthy despite being prone to injuries over the past couple of seasons, completed 22 of 43 passes for 278 yards, but did not throw a touchdown in the loss.  Lunt's main target continues to be Geronimo Allison, who caught 8 passes for 99 yards against the Badgers.  Interim head coach Bill Cubit figures that Ferguson may miss the game at Penn State this Saturday (11:00 am CT, ESPN2), but hopefully will return to action next weekend when the Illini travel to Purdue.

     Speaking of the Nittany Lions, they narrowly defeated Maryland last Saturday in Baltimore 31-30, behind quarterback Christian Hackenberg, who completed 13 of 29 passes for 315 yards and three scores.  Penn State running back Saquon Barkley rushed 20 times for 65 yards and a touchdown, sending the Nittany Lions to 6-2 overall and 3-1 in the Big Ten's Eastern Division.

     Kevin Hambly's Illini womens' volleyball team has been in a rut as of late, and this past weekend, it was more of the same.  On Friday night the Illini ventured to Bloomington to battle Indiana and came away with a 3-0 win, which was big for the team, since they hadn't had much success lately.  Then, on Sunday, the Illini went up the road to West Lafayette to take on Purdue and things were looking good as the Illini took an early 2-0 lead over the Boilermakers.  What happened next was befitting of the season thus far.  The Boilermakers came back and won the next two games, setting up a pivotal game five, which the Illini also dropped.  The heartbreaking loss drops Illinois to 13-8 overall, and just 4-6 in Big Ten play.  The Illini will have another chance to right the ship this weekend, when they welcome Michigan State on Friday night (7:00 pm CT), then will take on Michigan on Saturday night at home as well (7:00 pm CT).

     The Fighting Illini womens' soccer team wrapped up the regular season on Wednesday night when they traveled to Minneapolis to battle the Minnesota Golden Gophers.  The Illini came away victorious, defeating the Golden Gophers 3-1 behind two goals by Janelle Flaws.  With the win, Illinois improves to 10-5-3 overall and 4-4-3 in the Big Ten.  The Illini will now await their seeding in the Big Ten Tournament, which begins on Sunday.