Friday, December 23, 2011

Lost in Transition

The 2011 Braggin' Rights game was frantic. The quick pace contributed to a bit of sloppy play for the Illini, with lots of turnovers. But a key reason they were down much of the game was the poor transition defense. They often got lost, leading to an abundance of easy shots for Mizzou.

First-year Missouri coach Frank Haith did something new for a man in his position in the Braggin' Rights game. He won.

Mizzou drove into a very open lane a few too many times, both in their fast-break and half-court offenses. The Illini defense struggled to stay with their men, while on the other end, the Illini had more than their share of forced and unforced turnovers.

Many of the Illini issues are fixable...hit open shots, go stronger after rebounds and loose shots, work harder for stickier man-to-man defense, communicate better in the passing game. For as many of the 40 (or more) minutes as possible. Oh, and those unforced turnovers when you are on a run - those aren't necessary.

The Tigers are a very talented team, used to beating teams by well over 20 points per game. And credit Missouri - whenever the Illini took the lead, they came up with a big play and/or took advantage of an Illini mistake. This was a very tough test for the Illini. Although they lost, there were bright spots.

Down 14 points on multiple occasions, the Illini didn't give up. They fought hard, and when Mizzou started turning the ball over and missing tough shots midway through the second half, the Illini capitalized.

And a big part of that comeback was Joseph Bertrand off the bench. The promise he showed when he signed out of Sterling Illinois a few years ago. A redshirt sophomore, he had a career night with 19 points and 5 rebounds. Brandon Paul added 19 points, and Meyers Leonard had another strong double-double with 14 points and 13 rebounds.

It's hard to watch a great comeback fall short, but if the Illini build on this game, they will be in good shape for Big Ten Conference play.

So, Bruce and boys, enjoy a Merry Christmas despite the loss, and then get focused on the challenge that is the conference.

Go Illini!

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Monday, December 19, 2011

Another Tight One

Is this getting to be a habit? The Illini basketball team struggled against Cornell Monday night, trailing much of the game. They managed to pull out a 64-60 win, but it was tough.

The Illini held the advantage inside with Meyers Leonard, who pulled down 16 rebounds. And they had the athletic advantage in the backcourt. But it was actually a pretty mid-range game that was the difference. Leonard early and Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson late all hit some nice mid-range jumpers that first helped the Illini fight back from a 10-point deficit in the first half, and then take the lead for good in the second half.

But this was brutal. Apparently zone defense is Greek to these boys. They just don't seem to know how to break it when the 3s aren't falling. And that outside shot has been off of late. The Illini racked up plenty of turnovers trying to get the ball in the middle, as well.

On the other end of the floor, the Big Red was hot, shooting 50 percent behind the arc. However, the Illini did tighten up their defense considerably as the game went on. Although Cornell continued to shoot well, sticky man-to-man D was key to allowing the Illini to stay in the game.

The Illini have plenty to improve on when you look at their games since the Gonzaga win. And they will need to work fast to get ready for Mizzou in St. Louis:

Rebounding looked really good Monday night, though, and the tendency to pass the ball for an open shot is a very good one, even though it resulted in a few ugly turnovers against Cornell. There's lots to build on. But it just gets tougher from here. Braggin' Rights will lead right into the Big Ten Conference season. Get ready, boys!

And go Illini!



Sunday, December 18, 2011

Championship Dreams Blocked

It's probably more fun to win the last game of the season than it is to lose, and there's not much comfort in the fact that you played the last game of the season. But what a season, girls!

The Illini volleyball team fell to the UCLA Bruins 3-1 in the NCAA National Championship Saturday night. The girls fought hard, but nerves must have been an issue, as they made some uncharacteristic mistakes - the most obvious being the 11 service errors.

One surprise of this match was how the taller Illini struggled against the UCLA block. That stat belonged to the Bruins. And they made fewer mistakes.

Momentum was a another major factor. The first set was tight the whole way, with UCLA winning 25-23. The Illini trailed in the second set, but caught fire at the end to win 25-23. And they carried that momentum into the third set, leading most of the way. But then the Illini choked, and lost a couple set points, allowing UCLA to come back to win 26-24. After that, it was all Bruins, who cruised to the championship 25-16 in the fourth set.

The Illini were led, as usual, by outside hitters - and seniors - Michelle Bartsch and Colleen Ward. These girls will be missed next year, but they've left a legacy of winning. The experienced gained by younger players in this tournament run should serve the program well in the coming years.

The loss hurts, but thank you, girls, for solidifying the Illini as a national presence in collegiate volleyball. Although this was the first time we played in the last game of the year, I'm confident it won't be the last.

Go Illini!



Saturday, December 17, 2011

Out-Run by the Rebels

Fresh off of finals week, Bruce Weber's Illini looked...sluggish, slow, sloppy. The annual United Center game has gotten to be a not-so-fun visit to Chicago for the Illini. I don't think the UC can be considered the home-away-from-home anymore. Although many of the boys were close to home, they didn't have much to show off to family and friends in the 64-48 loss.

The UNLV Running Rebels have had a great season so far, knocking off then-#1 North Carolina a few weeks ago. And although they lost to Wisconsin last week, they bring a tough, fast-paced game. Saturday afternoon, they got unexpected contributions from Mike Moser and Quintrell Thomas down low, and almost nothing from leading scorer Chace Stanback. They ran, pounded the ball in the paint, overplayed passing lane and forced plenty of Illini turnovers.

The Illini, on the other hand, struggled. Lots. In unexpected areas. They shot just 50 percent from the free throw line, which is very uncharacteristic for this season. Three-point shooting was also tough. And even in the paint the Illini didn't shoot well. Despite efforts by Sam Maniscalco, Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson both driving and behind the 3-point line, the Illini couldn't find a spark. And after making a run to get within 8 points in the final minutes, the Rebels went on a run and the Illini appeared to give up. That's not cool.

Highlights were few, but Tyler Griffey fought hard and got some tough points. Richardson led the team with 19 points. And rebounding looked ok.

Overall, though the Illini need to make dramatic improvements in their game to be able to fight with Mizzou in the annual Braggin' Rights game next week. So pick yourselves up, boys. Shake it off. Refocus. And get ready for one last push before Christmas -- and conference play. After cheering on the volleyball team tonight, of course.



Thursday, December 15, 2011

On the Doorstep

The Illini volleyball program has been on trajectory to land in a national championship game for the past few years. And with a win over USC in five sets Thursday night to make it to Saturday's national title game, Coach Kevin Hambly has his team on the doorstep of their first NCAA title.

The semifinal match was tough. USC held on to win the first set 27-25, but with strong blocking and powerful hitting, the Illini took the next two sets. In the forth set, the Trojans took control near the end to force a fifth set. The Illini fought hard to pull even, and finally pull ahead 10-9 with fantastic hitting from freshman Liz McMahon. The Illini ended up winning the final set - and the entire match - on an incredibly long, hard-fought set-point volley.

The whole match was intense, and very well played. Senior outside hitters Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch did their thing, combining for 49 kills. But this was a team win, with key contributions all around the court.

As tired as I am after watching that match, I can only imagine that the girls are exhausted, but they have 2 days to get ready to play UCLA for the NCAA title. The Lady Bruins swept Florida State in the first match of the evening.

So Saturday, after enjoying the annual United Center basketball game, be sure to catch the national championship game.

Go Illini!



Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Welcome, Tim Beckman

Dear Coach Beckman,
Welcome to the University of Illinois! We look forward to what you will bring to Illini football. I'm sure you've done your research, and you have a pretty good idea of what you are getting into, but here are a few notes to keep in mind as you move to Champaign-Urbana and get to know your new university and conference.

You are moving to a college town in the middle of the prairie. It's flat, often windy, hot and muggy in the summer, and cold and icy in the winter. But we deal with it, and you will, too. Remember, variety is the spice of life. ;)

Memorial Stadium is a source of pride, and we think it is beautiful. It was renovated a few years ago, so that you have a boisterous student section in the north end zone, provided your team is competitive. Otherwise they will take off after the Marching Illini halftime show. (That's what we did the season I was a student watching an 0-11 season.) The stadium is across the street from another Illini treasure - Assembly Hall. But just on the other side of that, you will find the South Farms. Ag is an important industry in Illinois, and that is reflected at our premier land grand university (see: The Morrow Plots and the underground undergrad library). So when the wind blows from the south, and you catch the scent of the South Farms as you practice, make sure your players realize that's part of what makes their school unique.

It will take your family a couple hours to get to a major urban area for high-end shopping, culture and professional sports, but when you go, you have your choice of Chicago, St. Louis and Indy. We like to have players from the first two areas, as we consider them local, and we would love to play an extra game in the third area at the end of the regular season.

Speaking of Chicago, a healthy portion of your student body is from that general area. Ties to Chicago are strong, and the Bears borrowed their team colors from the Illini. Please respect that. You also need to pay just enough attention to baseball to know that the Cubs/Cards rivalry is a big deal in downstate Illinois, even though one team just won another World Series and the other team hasn't for a few years (100+, if you want to be technical).

We are the Fighting Illini. We have a wonderful tradition at football games - the Three-in-One. We used to have the Chief dance officially there, but since the NCAA and people with too much free time on their hands had a fit, the Chief dance now happens unofficially. But those of the alumni who care passionately about our athletics love the Chief. Be sure to research that tradition and be able to talk to us about that intelligently. That will make you a more popular guest speaker at fundraisers.

Your alumni base is strong. We love our team, but we also love to have something to be excited about, and that's been inconsistent from the football program lately. We like to wear that obnoxious orange color that really stands out. It should now be your favorite color. And your family should learn to love it, too. We will go to bowl games and spend our money. We are partial to Pasadena, though we don't get to go very often. Get us into contention for New Year's Day in SoCal or Florida on a regular basis, and we will be very supportive.

About our team...they looked really good at the beginning of the year. But in the past few years, they've been caught by the pull of a season's momentum. A big win propels them forward, but a tough loss gets into their heads and triggers a downward spiral that seemingly can't be stopped (see: seasons following the Rose Bowl appearance, 2011 Ohio State game). As head coach, you are responsible for breaking this trend.

And for recruiting. We've enjoyed getting some impressive talent from other parts of the country. You have your work cut out for you, convincing 17- and 18-year-old boys that they want to grow into men at the University of Illinois (see: above - it is in the middle of nowhere). But it can be done, as there are a handful of Illini in the NFL. This will be critical to your success.

You have a defensive background. Have you seen what Vic has done with our defense in recent years? We're pretty good on that side of the ball. Please don't let the boys slip backward there. Now on the offensive side, that's another story. We've been inconsistent. We have lots of firepower, but sometimes we've been anemic. Since that's not your strength, please be sure to bring in someone who can build an offense that can score. In the Big Ten.

Yes, welcome to the Big Ten, as well. We do know how to count. We are well aware that we have 12 teams, but we Midwesterners are the traditional type that aren't crazy about major change, so we will keep the name Big Ten. It's been an adjustment to accept our divisions and we find the names "Leaders" and "Legends" a bit cheesy.

You've spent time in the SEC, the Big XII and the Big Ten in the past, so you are aware of the different styles of play. We have oodles of proud tradition in the Big Ten, and from Memorial Stadium in Lincoln to Happy Valley in State College, there are lots of tough places to play. But it's been a tumultuous few years in Big Ten football. Lots of losses at Michigan, although Brady Hoke has them back on track. Scandal of epic proportions. Ohio State was a big deal until Penn State made that look almost silly. Please be aware that we really don't want any of those kinds of stories coming out of our football program. Ever. Please follow the rules (even though many of them are cumbersome and ridiculous).

Of course you will be reviewing plenty of tape to get to know your conference opponents. You now will be coaching against one of your former bosses, as Urban Meyer takes over at Ohio State. As Nebraska gets to know the rest of us, they will probably be even tougher to play. Wisconsin breeds O-linemen like nobody's business. Michigan State may be rebuilding a bit as this class graduates, but they've built a strong program, as has Iowa. Northwestern is always a wildcard, and Pat Fitzgerald is doing impressive things with his team. And even the teams that have been weaker in recent years, like Purdue, Indiana and Minnesota, are showing great improvement. You did impressive things at Toledo, and we would like to see you do similar things at Illinois, but the level of competition is a bit different than the MAC -- and the Illini have struggled against MAC teams the past couple years.

And one final note. Your boss is new to us, too. Under our previous AD, we had a reputation for giving coaches time to get their programs in place. We've been patient. We don't know yet if your boss has the same philosophy, and you will be a big part of helping us learn that about him.

Obviously you know you've taken on a big job. And it can be a great job. It's a delight to be part of Illini Nation. We really want to see you succeed. We want cheers of I-L-L I-N-I to resonate from Memorial Stadium. We want to wear our orange with pride. We want to cheer for our team both on and off the field. We want to take vacations over New Year's. We want to embrace you and your family wholeheartedly.

And we will. Just keep in mind that winning, especially a few years down the road, will help.

Again, welcome to the University of Illinois. I hope this helps you get to know us a bit better.
Alma Mater

P.S. Go Illini!

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Monday, December 12, 2011

Progress Report

With finals in full swing on campus, the Illini looked a bit shaky against Coppin State Sunday evening. The final score didn't reflect how the Eagles fought back from a 17-point deficit to pull within 2 points of the Illini about halfway through the second half.

Although the Illini won comfortably, their "review" games before finals weren't that impressive. Both the St. Bonaventure and Coppin State games highlight that while the Illini are a strong team, they have lots of room to improve. And they need to focus on those improvements while taking exams, because the rest of the non-conference season will be as tough as those classroom tests. Next up: UNLV and Mizzou, both teams playing very well.

With all the youth on the team, here's a progress report to help them track where they are and where they need to go if they want end up near the top of the Big Ten.
Achieves expectations:
Needs improvement:

All that aside, the Illini deserve props for being 10-0 as they head to the United Center and then to St. Louis.

So, boys, study hard, take your tests, and rest up a bit this week. Because after these two tough games, the conference grind will begin.

Go Illini!



Sunday, December 11, 2011

Final Four

Coach Kevin Hambly and his Fighting Illini volleyball team are headed to San Antonio next weekend for the national volleyball championship semi-finals. After beating both Ohio State and Florida in hard-fought matches in Gainsville this weekend, the Illini have reached the the Final Four!

Led by seniors Colleen Ward and Michelle Bartsch, and with strong support from rising freshman standouts Liz McMahon and Anna Dorn, the Illini continue to extend their season. The Florida match was tough, but the Illini won 3-1 with an almost unstoppable performance by Ward (a Florida transfer). The whole team contributed to the win, with great leadership from setter Annie Luhrsen, solid defense from libero Jennifer Beltran, key hits and blocks from Erin Johnson and support in the backcourt and on the service line from Rachel Feldman. These girls are fun -- and exhausting -- to watch.

The Florida match was broadcast on ESPNU, and despite the encouragement from the commentators and the highlight reel team, the Gators weren't able to overcome the Illini. Not sure why the analysis was so pro-Florida, but it was a bit annoying.

The Illini are the highest remaining seed in the tournament, ranked 3rd overall going into it. They spent 4 weeks at #1 during the season, longer than any other team. And although they finished tied for second in the Big Ten (arguably the toughest volleyball conference in the nation) they are the only conference team still in the national title hunt. They will take on USC Thursday night.

Congratulations, girls! And Go Illini!



Saturday, December 10, 2011

Marking the Beginning of the Thomas Era

Friday afternoon, new Illinois AD Mike Thomas introduced his first major hire, and gave Illini Nation a glimpse of the direction he plans to take our athletics. In my opinion, the selection of Tim Beckman is the first test for Thomas.

Coach Tim Beckman has to have 46 years of coaching experience, as his dad was a football coach. He has a strong list of mentors, including the new Ohio State football coach, and most importantly, he engineered a dramatic program turnaround for the Toledo Rockets in just three years. Beckman describes himself as intense and competitive, but also says he values a family atmosphere and trust. Those priorities sound like a continuation of the current Illini program claims, as many players cite the family atmosphere as the reason they chose to play in Champaign.

Beckman appears to be a good choice to lead the Illini. Much like Michigan's Brady Hoke, he is an up-and-coming coach who has proven successful in a lesser FBS conference. The Rockets, like the Illini, are headed to their second bowl in as many years. The question for Beckman to answer is can he reproduce that success against traditional powerhouse opponents like Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State and Nebraska? But to be honest, a program like Illinois, where expectations are more manageable than, say Penn State, is a good spot for Beckman to prove himself.

So, at this point, it looks like Mike Thomas is off to a solid start. Of course, it will take a few years and a few other hires to see what Thomas will build. In the lesser sports, he's got really strong programs. Illini volleyball, gymnastics, soccer, tennis, golf and wrestling have all been very strong programs in recent years. If those coaches stay put and those programs continue to do well, and hires like Beckman prove successful, life as Illini fans will be fun.

Oh, and be sure to cheer on the Illini volleyball team tonight as they take on Florida for the chance to be in the Final Four. Go Illini!

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Friday, December 09, 2011

Fight Hunger!

Hunger is a very real problem across the country and around the world. As with any widespread problem, anyone can fight against it. Including a .500 college football team on a 6-game losing streak and a vacancy at head coach.

The Illini will have a couple weeks of (much needed) practice and recovery with defensive coordinator and acting head coach Vic Koenning (and incoming head coach Tim Beckman?) before taking on a 6-7 UCLA team that is also waiting for a head coach. The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco on Dec. 31 certainly can claim credit for both raising awareness of a critical issue and giving two struggling teams an opportunity to build toward next season's fresh start. At least the game should be competitive!

The Illini got caught in a downward spiral that just got uglier as the season went on and was capped by a painful loss to Minnesota. But they are bowl eligible, and they were chosen to take the place of Army in this bowl. I'm sure the local organizers expect dedicated Illini fans to show up ready to spend money in San Fran. And I am sure their expectations will be met.

Though the season has been disappointing, the Illini still have managed to get bowl invites in back-to-back seasons, and Whitney Mercilus was recognized nationally as one of the top defensive linemen on the Walter Camp All-America Team. So there are bright spots.

And the game will be fun to watch with extended family before ringing in the New Year. Go Illini!

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Thursday, December 08, 2011

Running on BP

Last week, Bruce Weber's basketball team looked like a Big Ten surprise. They came back in a tough road game at Maryland to help the Big Ten win the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And then they played really, really tough against #19 Gonzaga in Champaign, as if to let the country know they could play.

This week, now ranked #22, Weber warned of the potential for a trap game against St. Bonaventure. Coach knows what he is talking about.

It was ugly. After a quick start, the Illini struggled, with 13 turnovers to 9 assists and a paltry 24 points each half. The Illini trailed most of the game, and would have fallen, but for the late energy provided by Brandon Paul.

The Bonnies called a timeout at 4:30 in the second half, and Weber's message was clear - drive the ball. Paul went on an 8-2 run in the next 2 minutes, creating a tie game. Solid free throw shooting, a few key tap-out rebounds by Meyers Leonard and a couple friendly officiating calls allowed the Illini to pull out the win. But Paul was the key.

Despite the sloppiness, the Illini remain undefeated. Next up: Coppin State and finals. Good luck with both, boys. 'Cause after that, it's going to get tough...

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Saturday, December 03, 2011

Catching Up

There's been no end to recent activity in Illini sports. And we've been paying attention, even if we've neglected to write. Here are a few highlights and lowlights...

The men's basketball team started their non-conference season looking a bit raw and uncertain. But now, at 8-0, they've gained confidence. The win on the road against Maryland in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge proved they could come back in a tough environment. The win against a ranked Gonzaga team at home proved they can compete hard and build on the energy of Assembly Hall. Their are some really tough games coming up before what should be a brutal Big Ten season, but the Illini should be competitive.

The football team started a downward spiral in October that continued through November. The missed field goal in Happy Valley. Missed opportunities in efforts to come back against Michigan. A poor showing against Minnesota. And the understandable end of the Ron Zook era. A bowl bid is still likely, but these boys have lots of work to do, as does new AD Mike Thomas.

On the other side of post-season play, the Illini volleyball team claimed the #3 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, and swept both Central Michigan and Marquette at Huff Hall to head to the Sweet Sixteen, where they will meet Ohio State. This team has the potential to go deep in the tournament, and they are so much fun to watch.

After winning the Big Ten tournament, the Illini soccer team advanced past Notre Dame to the second round of the NCAA tournament before losing. But Coach Janet Rayfield garnered regional coach of the year honors for the second year in a row, and midfielder Vanessa DiBernardo was a player of the year finalist.

So despite a depressing finish to the football season, Illini Nation has plenty to be optimistic about... Go Illini!


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