Thursday, November 29, 2007
The Illini seemed a bit rattled at moments in a very hostile environment, but they still played tough. Maryland was not impressive, and that's a game we could have won had the seniors shown up, but given shooting percentage, the Illini were doing good to be down only 2 points with 1 minute left.
My guess is that practice this week will have these themes: free throw shooting, layups, ree throw shooting, passing inside, free throw shooting, shooting from less than 5' from the basket, free throw shooting, jump shots, free throw shooting, 3-point shooting, free throw shooting...
Randle and Pruitt have loads of potential to dominate down low, and they should not be outscored so soundly in the paint. Alexander, McCamey and Meacham provided some offensive bright spots. And I love watching the whole team rebound. They go after the ball with purpose. And even though they didn't score, it was good to see the big guys finally go to the basket with purpose as the game was winding down.
This will be an interesting season, but with so much potential and room for improvement, we will find more to cheer about.
Labels: Illini basketball
Monday, November 26, 2007
That said, this marketing ploy gives us a chance to get to know the Big 10 a bit better. The landscape has changed quite a bit, with Tubby Smith, John Beilein and Todd Lickliter on the sidelines. See this quick take on the games for additional thoughts, although Iowa lost this evening.
It also means we have to hear about how dominating the ACC is, how delightful their "diaper dandies" are, how the Dookies embody basketball perfection, how Roy Williams has revitalized UNC with the help of Tyler Hansbrough, etc. The one ACC story that I can appreciate is the challenge facing new Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio as he and the team grieve the late Skip Prosser.
But, as Maryland Coach Gary Williams noted, "We had four teams in the (2006 NCAA) tournament. We've beaten the Big Ten in [every] ACC Challenge, and the Big Ten's gotten more teams in than us in five of those seven years, I believe." It's early, Gary, relax. And enjoy the game Wednesday night.
More Bowl Predictions: What If...
What if Oklahoma, a 2-loss team, beats Missouri, a 1-loss #1, in the Big 12 Championship this weekend? Or (less likely) what if West Virginia loses to Pitt? Will 1-loss Ohio State make the Championship? What would that do to the Rose Bowl? Would the organizers honor the Big 10/PAC-10 tradition? Is there another Big 10 team to fill that spot?
Right now, to be eligible for an at-large BCS berth, a team must have 9 wins, and be ranked at least #14 in their rankings. Plus, no more than 2 teams from a conference can be in one of the 5 BCS bowls. Illinois is currently #15, and the highest-ranked Big Ten team after Ohio State. But what if #14 Tennessee loses to LSU, #12 Hawaii loses to Washington, #11 Boston College loses to Virginia Tech or #13 Arizona State loses to Arizona? Would the Illini move up in the rankings? One or two of these scenarios is likely -- the Vols and BC look particularly vulnerable here. (Thanks to Meegs for this research.)
Yes, that is a lot of "what ifs," but given the season to date, anything is possible. Regardless of whether or not the Illini are BCS-bound, they are headed to a quality bowl game somewhere, and that's worth getting excited about. But, as Chief said, a playoff system would eliminate a lot of the confusion...
Sunday, November 25, 2007
They also have us possibly sneaking into a couple of the BCS Bowls: The Fiesta against Kansas and the Sugar against LSU.
Of that scenario I'd definately take the Fiesta Bowl. That would be a very winnable game for us and good publicity for our program. Replaying the '01 Sugar Bowl in what amounts to home-field advantage for LSU doesn't excite me at all.
All of this begs the question again: why don't we have a playoff? It would be so simple to design and institute. It makes no sense.
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
Reasons for Optimism
Weber and the Illini are off to a strong 3-1 start. The loss came tonight to Duke, ranked 10 in the country. Because they are playing in Hawaii, it hasn't been easy to get a good look at Bruce's team. There are lots of questions marks, but we got some answers against a very talented team.
Here are a few reasons my optimism is growing:
- Rebounding. The Illini can jump, and they go after the ball. Their rebounding numbers are great -- especially on the offensive end (we won't think about what that means for shooting percentage).
- Passing. Although it's early, I've seen some beautiful ball movement. With time, I expect this to get even better.
- Athleticism. This description for Illini players is going to get old very quickly this season -- because it's true. We've got great athletes who are in great condition, and it shows. Weber can coach skill, build strength, and push conditioning, but he can't coach vertical jump, wingspan or natural coordination. This team should be fun to watch.
- Motion. It's pretty. Not always completely effective thus far, but these boys are moving well, and they look like they understand the plays.
- Depth. The way Weber asks for motion offense and tight man-to-man defense, fresh legs will be a huge plus. Finding a starting line-up may be a challenge, but the competition in practice will benefit the entire team.
- Confidence. Randle is becoming a go-to guy, Brock has improved, Chester is running the team, Pruitt is dominating in the post, and even the many freshman seem to be pretty confident when they are on the floor. I may not know what to expect from this team, but these guys expect to win.
I would like to see shooting improve, but it seems that free-throw shooting is slightly better than last year. Although they handled the Arizona State zone well, the Duke zone was tough to break, and shooting went cold. Fouls will be a problem, but again, depth will help.
The Big Ten will be tough, but I think the Illini will be more competitive than expected. Weber consistently overachieves with the talent he has, and this year should be no different. Boys, let's eliminate off-court issues this season, and focus on class and basketball.
Overall, this season should be very interesting, but I'm excited to see what will happen. Go Illini!
By the way...MJ looks pretty good in orange. I'm sure it wasn't easy for him to watch his son lose to Duke.
Labels: Illini basketball
What a Season!
Illinois ends the season in second place in the Big Ten, tied with Michigan (a game we could have won...), behind Ohio State (a game I am still impressed we won). And, the upset of the Buckeyes in Columbus pushed the Illini into the BCS picture, as Chief pointed out.
The Sweet Sioux Tomahawk trophy has finally returned to Champaign after 4 years. Although I didn't see all the Northwestern game, the text updates I received indicated that the Illini stayed in control. (Thanks to the Illini fan who kept me updated on both the Illini and the OSU-Michigan game from Memorial stadium while I was at the wedding -- but I did see your ESPN debut!) The Illini seniors, who have risen from the bottom of the Big Ten, inspired their team the night before the game -- and the Illini delivered.
As other conferences move into championship games, the Illini can enjoy Thanksgiving as they watch and wait for a bowl invitation. It should be a great one...
Monday, November 19, 2007
Illini gonna Fiesta? Life after Guenther and other stuff
Something I never thought was even close to possible when the season started and I can't believe this is even a possibility but there are those out there who believe we will not only get a very good bowl game but could be headed to a BCS game. SI's Mandel thinks so.
If you think Zook deserves Coach of the Year honors, click here and vote.
Finally, looks like we need to start preparing for life after Ron Guenther. Hopefully the university doesn't botch this like they did the Chief.
Saturday, November 17, 2007
Going to...Miss the Game
But a wedding today? With the Illini alone in third place in the Big Ten, and Northwestern visiting Champaign? I know I sent in my RSVP, but Memorial Stadium would be an exciting place to be today. And it's less than an hour down the road.
Anything can happen, but a win over the Wildcats today will give the Illini a shot at a high-profile, warm-weather bowl game. Exciting stuff.
Plus, it's Senior day. J Leman, Jason Reda, Antonio Steele, Chris Norwell, Jacob Willis, Russ Weil, Justin Harrison, Kevin Mitchell, Akim Millington, Mike Ware...a total of 23 seniors are playing their last game at Memorial Stadium. These guys have watched the Illini footall program turn around -- from the sidelines and the field.
But I won't be able to watch. I'll be at my brother's wedding. I love my family.
Sunday, November 11, 2007
- A drive to win. The Illini went into Columbus with no fear. They didn't let two quick Buckeye scores rattle them. They stuck to their game plan well.
- An "all or nothing" attitude. You need this to beat a #1 team on their home field. You have to take chances -- which Zook did with two 4th down conversions. And he took chances again keeping the ball on the ground during the final drive of the game, even on 3rd and long. The Illini had nothing to lose, and they played like it. Ohio State had a lot more on the line, no question. Tressel's conservative coaching style suits the talented #1 team, but today risks paid off.
- No turnovers. Juice and his offense protected the ball perfectly.
- Few mistakes. The first Illini penalty came in the 4th quarter. Just three weeks ago, penalties killed this team.
- Taking what's there. Ohio State had a great defensive plan for the Illini, which they appeared to borrow from Iowa: Stop Rashard Mendenhall. They executed this strategy very well, but the Illini took what was available. QB draws and passes kept many drives alive, and Juice found the open man of the moment in the endzone not once or twice, but four times. He took control of this game.
- Hard hits. Both the Illini, led by J Leman, and Ohio State, led by James Laurenitis, made offensive players earn their yards. Beanie Wells got up limping, and Russ Weil was knocked out of the game. The hit of the day belonged to Vontae Davis -- it was impressive. He just didn't need to knock himself out of the game.
- Unexpected contributions. Benn was out for the second half, and barely touched the ball, although he did affect the game. But Gamble, Wilkins, Hoomanawanui, and Willis stepped up. True freshman Marcus Thomas filled in for Vontae, tipping a pass to Antonio Steele in the end zone and a 4th quarter interception.
- A dominating O-line. The Illini got the ball with 8:09 left in the game and a 7-point lead. The offensive line closed out the game, making it possible to use the entire 8:09 with the ball on the ground. These guys allows Illinois to control the clock.
- Strong defense. Leman had 12 tackles, and was on the ball for almost every other play. Beanie Wells and Brian Robiskie were contained relatively well. Plus, the Illini grabbed 3 interceptions -- one in the end zone.
- A lucky break. You don't pull huge upsets without a few of these, and the Illini clearly took advantage of theirs. But regardless of this call, the Illini out-played the Buckeyes for 60 full minutes.
- Sweet victory. Congratulations to Ron Zook. This is the second time he's put together a team that beat Ohio State. Zook and Juice Williams both were a bit choked up during their post-game interviews. The team clearly savored this win -- and so did the Illini Nation. (Note to team: Next time, let's avoid the mid-field altercation.)
- National attention. The Illini victory/Ohio State loss led SportsCenter, and Juice earned a College GameDay Final helmet sticker. The game grabbed top sports headlines on multiple websites, as well. It's nice to be the top story. Thanks to Buckeye Kirk Herbstreit for giving the Illini credit for a well-played game on national television.
Thank you to the Florida Gators for giving Coach Zook experience that has made him a great fit for Illinois. I look forward to seeing where this team will head for post-season play.
Saturday, November 10, 2007
THAT'S a GAME!
Oskee-Wow-Wow!! That was an amazing game! Our defense was indeed, "a pack of hyenas!" 3 interceptions! Our rushing offense passed for 4 TD -- to 4 different receivers! And the O-line was impressive -- especially on 4th down!
Labels: Illini football
Give 'Em a Game
Today the Illini head to the Horseshoe to take on a #1 OSU team that many believe is even better than last year. While the Buckeyes have a few weaknesses, the Illini would need a near-perfect game to win in Columbus. But as we've learned so far this season, anything can happen...I at least expect a competitive game.
Labels: Illini football
Wednesday, November 07, 2007
I have yet to see this team in action, and I don't know how much of them I will be able to see, thanks to the BTN, but for the moment, I'll go with very cautious optimism.
By the way -- note that the Today Show is planning to air a piece with MJ, Jeff and Bruce Friday morning.
Monday, November 05, 2007
A Picture of Progress
After posting the lowest 4-season winning percentage in the conference, the Illini have turned a corner. The Penn State win marked the beginning of something special in Champaign, but the resounding victory over the current conference bottom-dwellers underscored just how far the Illini have come. (But take heart, Gopher fans, and give your new coach a couple years before you give up on him -- you won't be at the bottom forever.)
Juice showed off his arm with a couple beautiful TD passes. Rashard Mendenhall took advantage of a weak run defense to take over the Illinois single-season TD record at 16 (and counting). Then Rashard stepped back to let his brother Walter have a turn. Jeff Cumberland also had a great game that included a TD.
Now alone in third place in the Big Ten, the Illini are guaranteed a spot in one of the bowls committed to the conference. They looked great this weekend, and I plan to savor this for a day or two before thinking too much about #1 Ohio State next weekend.
Friday, November 02, 2007
On the Road Again
Given what's already happened during the 2007 college football season, I can't rule it out. In fact, the Illini looked a lot like Minnesota just a few years ago, and that's why the Illini can't be overconfident, even though they are 12-point favorites. Plus, the Illini haven't won at the Metrodome since 1994.
However, like most Illini, I expect a win this year. The Gophers have a very young roster including a redshirt freshman QB, and our defense is experienced. Given the weakness of the Gophers' run defense, Rashard Mendenhall should have a great game. Plus, a win should clinch a bowl game.
Labels: Illini basketball