Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Here We Go!

Welcome to the Big Ten! The conference season is going to be fun, although I may not have any fingernails left. (My mom did mention that I could wear gloves during the games...) Illinois is 1-0 in Big Ten play, and improved to 13-1 overall. And Purdue is a very surprising 0-1 in the conference. The Big Ten will beat up on each other all season, but the Illini stole one that, as Bruce said after the game, isn't one that many other teams will get.

The Illini played fairly well against the pre-season favorites to win the conference. And they played fairly well for a conference road game. Both teams were tight and missed way too many gimme shots underneath. But what a game!

The Illini jumped out to a quick lead, Purdue roared back, and then Illinois went on a run again and led (barely) for most of the game. Not an easy thing to do on the road in conference play. When Purdue grabbed the lead with just over 3 minutes to go, I figured the Illini had played really well on the road, but that they would inevitably not be able to hold on in such a hostile environment. Thanks for proving me wrong, boys!

This game bodes well for the rest of the season, and there was a lot to like:

But there are a couple areas that the Illini will need to work on to build on this big upset.

But wow! The Illini won a big game that just may push them into the top 25 next week. They've already exceeded expectations, and this promises to be a very interesting season.

Go Illini!



Monday, December 29, 2008

Conference Tip-Off

Big Ten conference play begins Dec. 30 with 5 teams in the top 25, and a 6th, the Illini, receiving votes. It's gonna be a tough year, and the conference champs will need to protect their home court and win as many on the road as possible. And although the Illini are looking much, much better than last year, the entire conference appears to be much improved, despite the loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Here's a quick overview...

Illinois: Off to a 12-1 start, the Illini looked great against Mizzou and I was pleasantly surprised by their play in the Clemson loss. Yes, most of the wins are against teams the Illini were expected to beat -- and they did not look good against Eastern Michigan. And although the Illini are hovering just short of the AP Top 25, they open Big Ten play on the road against Purdue and Michigan. Those will be very, very tough games. However, finishing in the top half of the league is a realistic possibility, as is a tourney invite. But expect shooting percentage to drop as the level of defense they face improve.

Indiana: Tom Crean has his work cut out for him in his first year at Indiana. Already at just 5-7, his season will probably look a bit like what Rich Rodriguez just survived in Michigan. But Crean is good, and in a couple years, he will have Indiana back where they expect to be. So enjoy their down time while it lasts -- and expect to see a much better team at the end of February than we've seen in non-conference play. The Illini will face the Hoosiers twice, and should be able to win both games.

Iowa: At 10-3, the Hawkeyes have had a fairly good non-conference run, although the Drake loss was ugly. Todd Lickliter is in his second season in the Big Ten, and is still probably a year or two away from the level of play he would like to reach. But he has the program headed in the right direction, and playing in Iowa City will be a challenge for the rest of the conference. Iowa is only on the schedule once during conference play, and that game will be in Champaign, so the Illini should come out on top.

Michigan: The Wolverines have surprised many so far this year -- especially powerhouses UCLA and Duke. (Although I don't understand how losing to an unranked team caused Duke to fall only from 4 to 7 in the rankings...but that's a whole different topic.) They are now ranked, and John Beilein has his team at 10-2, with his only losses against Maryland and Duke. (Yes, for those just tuning in, the Wolverines have played Duke twice.) The Illini only play the Wolverines once, and that game is in Ann Arbor. That will be an incredibly tough game to win, but hopefully it will help the young starters learn to handle Big Ten road games.

Michigan State: Tom Izzo and the Spartans are 9-2, ranked #10 in the AP poll, and look to be one of the top teams in the conference this year. Their losses, however, were big ones to Maryland and North Carolina. One note of interest -- the 2008-09 Spartans are shooting only 65% from the free throw line. That is very atypical for an Izzo-coached team. The Illini will face Michigan State twice. The road game will be a huge challenge, and the Illini will need to be on their game to protect their home court.

Minnesota: One of the biggest surprises of the young season, Tubby Smith and the Golden Gophers are 12-0 as they head into Big Ten play. Their marquis win came over Louisville, and they will be tough all year. And Tubby has some good classes coming to the Twin Cities in the near future. After years of struggling, this program will become one to watch for. The Illini will be doing good to split the season series with the Gophers.

Northwestern: At 8-2, the Wildcats and Bill Carmody are also off to a strong start this year. Their non-conference schedule wasn't that tough, but they still navigated it well, and they won't be a pushover in conference play, either. The Illini will only play the 'Cats once -- in Evanston. This would be a nice game to steal on the road, but that will happen only if the Illini are clicking that night.

Ohio State: Thad Matta has proven to be a master at recruiting freshman that head straight to the draft instead of back to school, but his record impresses. The Buckeyes are 9-1. However, that one loss was a big one to West Virginia just before they tip off conference play. Matta's boys aren't expected to dominate like they have the past couple years, especially with the temporary loss of leader (and upperclassman) David Lighty. But they are in the AP Top 25, and will likely gain steam as the season progresses. The Illini will need to work hard to split the two games against the Buckeyes this year.

Penn State: Ed DeChellis and the Nittany Lions will start the Big Ten season with the most wins ever in their 17 seasons since joining the conference. This program has been slowly improving, and DeChellis, now in his 6th year, is finally seeing his program gain momentum. The Nittany Lions will be one of the many teams fighting in the middle of the conference, but the Illini should be able to split this 2-game series.

Purdue: The Boilermakers are expected to be at the top of the Big Ten, as Matt Painter and company have been the highest ranked Big Ten team throughout most of the non-conference season. Purdue has an experienced, talented team, and at 11-2, their only losses are in overtime to Oklahoma and the Duke loss in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini open the Big Ten against Purdue in West Lafayette, a game that will be a huge stretch to win. The Illini will need to fight hard late in the season to hold serve at home against Weber's former assistant.

Wisconsin: Bo Ryan and the Badgers are 9-3, and played a top 10 Texas team really tough in Madison. The Badgers also won a close game against Virginia Tech on the road in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. They also expect to be in the thick of the mid-conference fight, and the Illini will have to play well to split the Badger series this year.

If the Illini play well and come out of conference play with a .500 record or slightly better, they will be doing well. That record, plus respectable play in the Big Ten Tournament, may be enough to get them into the Big Dance. And, that type of play will strengthen the foundation for the 2009-10 team that will welcome a very talented recruting class to Champaign.

If you like college basketball, the Big Ten should be fun to watch this year. Teams will beat each other up, but that should make for a strong showing come March.

Go Illini!

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Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas!

The Illini have plenty to brag about after their performance Tuesday night. Bruce Weber and his boys delivered an impressive win for Illini nation, complete with plenty of passing and teamwork, lights-out shooting, solid defense and lots of 3s, just in time for Christmas.

Illinois dominated from tip-off. The Mizzou team that broke into the AP top 25 this week apparently didn't make the trip to St. Louis. For Mike Anderson and the Tigers, it was one of those cold, cold nights. They were held to 37% shooting, and made just 2 of 18 from behind the arc. At times, they couldn't buy a basket, even down low.

The Illini out-shot (57%), out-rebounded (32 to 25) and out-hustled the Tigers all night. But they really shone in the first half. At one point just before halftime, both Demetri McCamey and the entire Mizzou team each had 18 points. McCamey finished with 20, and Trent Meacham led the team with 23 points. Combined, these guards were 7 of 12 from 3. Chester Frazier added 8 of the teams 22 assists and had 3 steals. And in the front court, where Mizzou was expected to dominate, Mike Tisdale showed off his shooting touch and Mike Davis added to his season highlight reel.

One of the highlights for this Illini team is their teamwork. Their passing looked pretty good against Mizzou, and nearly 76% of their baskets came with an assist. The Illini made a strong case to make their way into the rankings before conference play starts.

But in the meantime, take advantage of those Braggin' Rights!
Merry Christmas, and Go Illini!



Monday, December 22, 2008

Something to Brag About

The annual Border War between Mizzou and Illinois is, in my very biased opinion, one of the best non-conference rivalries in college basketball. And this year's Braggin Rights game has the potential to be a good one.

Mizzou comes into the game ranked #25 in the AP poll. The Illini are riding an 8-game winning streak, having won every year since 1999.

The Tigers have just one loss on the season -- to Xavier. Illinois has just one loss on the season -- to Clemson. Both Xavier and Clemson are currently ranked, Xavier at #12 and Clemson at #22.

Mizzou is shooting 48.2% on the season (36.4% from 3), while holding opponents to 39%. Illinois is shooting 48.6% on the season (39.1% from 3), while holding opponents to 39.4%. The Tigers average 20.4 assists per game, while the Illini average 19.7 assists per game.

Mike Anderson's team has a clear edge in rebounding and has stronger inside players. Bruce Weber's boys have been shooting really, really well in recent games, especially from 3-point range. Both coaches have teams that are fighting to regain national respect, and both teams are much better than they were last year. Both teams will have half the Scottrade Center behind them.

Given all this, the winner really will have something to brag about.

To win, the Illini will need to play with the defensive intensity they showed in the second half of the Detroit game and limit turnovers. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale will be under more pressure than they have faced, and Alex Legion will be glad he got his first game as an Illini out of the way. Let's hope he worked through some of his jitters.

Should be a good game. Go Illini!



Saturday, December 20, 2008

Almost Like Christmas

Illini Nation hopes to get their first glimpse of transfer Alex Legion tonight, provided all his first semester grades are posted, against Detroit Mercy. This should be a good tune-up before the Braggin' Rights game. (But please don't take anything for granted, boys!)

But Legion is just the first in what could be a steady stream of talent pouring into Champaign. Weber has his first oral commitment from the class of 2011, Tracy Abrams, a sophomore from Mt. Carmel who showed off as a freshman in the state tournament last year. With the commitments recieved to date, both the class of 2009 and 2010 are currently among the top in the country.

Yes, we know that we can't guarantee anything until we've got it in writing, but the character of Big Ten coaches has been significantly upgraded, and the kids planning to head to Champaign have thus far demonstrated Illinois Loyalty. So for now, let's take these boys at their word and look forward to welcoming them to Champaign.

Legion, Abrams, what looks to be a good match-up for the Braggin' Rights game...it's almost like Christmas! Wait -- it almost is Christmas!

Go Illini!

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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Highs and Lows

Illini linebacker Martez Wilson is out of the hospital after his surgery following his receiving two stab wounds early last Friday morning. Coach Zook said he was proud of Wilson for going to the aid of a former teammate. But the initial news on the ESPN ticker on Friday didn't reflect well on the Illini program. Wilson is expected to recover, and as the third leading tackler on the team, he could play a key role next year. I'm glad he's ok, but the incident is a low.

The Illini women's volleyball team didn't make it past the Sweet 16 last weekend, but that still marked their best season in five years, and outside hitter Laura DeBruler was named Second-Team All-American. Definitely a high.

Kentucky transfer Alex Legion is still expected to make his Illini debut somewhere in the rotation Saturday against Detroit. Sounds like he's been working hard and has a lot to offer -- but remember that he hasn't played in a game for quite a while. Let's hope this is a high...

Go Illini!

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Thursday, December 11, 2008

End-of-Semester Highlights

The volleyball team made the NCAA Sweet 16, and will play California Friday afternoon. The Illini have had a terrific season, and are looking to go as far as they can before Coach Don Hardin retires.

The men's basketball team headed into finals break with a solid win over Hawaii and a commanding win over Chicago State, both at home. They now have more than a week to study and prepare to likely welcome Kentucky transfer Alex Legion to the floor against Detroit on Dec. 20.

The woman's basketball team held on for a close win over UW-Milwaukee on the road Wednesday, after falling to Bradley Saturday at the United Center. Next up after finals -- North Carolina.

The Illini wrestlers are ranked #8 in the nation, and have gotten off to a very strong start this season.

Go Illini!


Sunday, December 07, 2008


The Illini looked good at the United Center Saturday. Georgia certainly helped, with their season-high turnover mark and inability to score (which included the last 7 minitues of the game). But the Illini had D -- lots of it:

This was a confidence-builder for the Illini, but Georgia clearly struggled all game. Part of the challenge could be attributed to the early start, but Dennis Felton looks to have a long season ahead of him.

And although the Illini have a lot to be happy with, the game tape will show plenty of room for improvement:

This team is starting to answer questions about who they are, but much remains to be seen. Should be an interesting season...

Go Illini!

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Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Under Pressure

The Illini didn't quite hold up under pressure, losing 76-74 to Clemson. And that last play caused flashbacks to last season, where the Illini just couldn't pull out close games. But despite the disappointing (and avoidable) loss, there was a lot to like in the play of the Illini. Here are several reasons I think the Illini will not revert to team we saw just miss in close games last year:

But there is plenty of room for improvement, as well. Could the Illini have come out the undefeated team? Definitely. Areas to work on include:

This was a disappointing loss, a game the Illini let slip away. But Clemson played a great game, using their strengths to come back from 8 down. As long as this doesn't become a pattern, Illini fans should have a pleasantly surprising season as we prepare for the arrival of a couple notable recruiting classes...

Go Illini!

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Monday, December 01, 2008

Big Challenge

The Illini basketball season is off to a solid start. The Illini are undefeated after just escaping against Kent State and Tulsa in South Padre over the holiday weekend. But they proved they could come from behind and survive overtime to win. That's a bit different than what we saw last year, and it's very encouraging.

So this week the Illini will face undefeated Clemson, an up-tempo, high-scoring team, in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Illini have been relying on defense thus far, and the Tigers like to run. The Illini will be helped by being at home, but this will be a tough game for this team.

It's still a bit early to get a really good feel for this Illini team, but there's a lot to like early. They can make free throws, shooting nearly 75% on the season, which is much, much better than last season. Although they have been out-rebounded in some games, they still crash the boards fairly well. And they play hard. Chester Frazier, who played the most minutes of any Illini in South Padre, played with a deep thigh bruise that made it hard for him to walk, let alone run around for two games. These are elements to build a season on.

But the Clemson game will tell fans a lot more about this team. This is likely the best team the Illini will have faced so far, and they are coming off a weekend they just survived. Bruce and his boys will need a supportive crowd. Go Illini!



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