Saturday, March 21, 2009

And Bowing Out

The Illini didn't exactly impress in the Big Dance. The holes we've seen all season were exposed painfully by the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers. And the Illini didn't play their game.

However, the Illini made the game interesting at the end, making a run based on suffocating defense that didn't show up until late in the game. There's no question that Chester's suffocating defense was missed, as Western Kentucky had too many open looks and drove inside much too easily. But the Illini didn't give up. Despite their struggles, they played hard.

The Illini play didn't merit moving on in the tournament, but then again, the Hilltoppers had their share of struggles, turnovers and miscues. But at the beginning of the season, we weren't sure if we had a team that would compete in the conference, let alone merit a tournament bid.

This team has been fun to cheer for all season (even if they were hard to watch at times). The seniors set the tone for teamwork and determination. The sophomores improved dramatically from their freshman year to allow the Illini to finish second in the Big Ten regular season. And this team proved that coaching and chemistry can make a team better than individual players.

So although the final game was painfully disappointing, thanks to the 2008-09 Illini team for a much better season than expected. Good luck to the graduating seniors, and to the rest of the team, we know you will work hard this summer. We look forward to next year...



Tuesday, March 17, 2009


The Illini are back in the Big Dance. And they have a tough draw, thanks to a shaky end to the regular season. They are headed to Portland to play a team that made the Sweet Sixteen last year. But the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers don't have a complete returning roster, and they will face a very tough Illini D.

Although Chester Frazier is a "long shot" to play on Thursday night, Calvin Brock has stepped up, and the Illini are unlikely to shoot as poorly as they did against Purdue last Saturday. If the Illini play their game, they can play another day...or two. The Sweet Sixteen would exceed pre-season expectations, but these guys have been exceeding expectations all season.

But regardless of their tournament performance, this Illini team has been fun to watch all year. Even when the shots aren't falling, they have played hard, passed well and made it difficult for the opponent to score.

The seniors, Chester, Trent and Calvin, have promoted a vastly improved team chemistry, and sophomores Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale and Demetri McCamey have all made cases for the teams most improved player and future go-to guy. And the supporting cast has surrounded them well. Dominique Keller brings energy off the bench, along with his unconventional shot. Jeff Jordan is developing nicely as a decision-maker and defender who knows how to play within his abilities. And Alex Legion still has promise, and will find his place on this team.

Let's enjoy the last few weeks of 2008-09 college basketball. Go Illini!



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Falling Short

That's what happened to way too many of the Illini shots against Purdue today. Shots fell short, bricked or just wouldn't fall -- a sight Illini fans have seen a couple times this season. The Illini had plenty of the shots they wanted, but they weren't able to actually score.

The Boilermakers we saw today were the team that was expected to be at the top of the conference from the beginning of the season.

JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel led the Boilers in scoring, and although Dominique Keller had 16 and Calvin Brock had 12 points, the Illini couldn't keep up. The stats show that the Illini were only out-rebounded by 3 and that Mike Davis matched Hummel with 12 boards, but during the game it seemed that Purdue was much more active. In fact, the final score is much more respectable thanks to 3 last-minute 3s from Bill Cole.

The Illini will likely get a tough seed in the tournament, but they should be dancing next week. Hopefully Chester will be able to play -- he was missed today.

Purdue - Ohio State should be an entertaining championship game...and then the Madness will begin.



Saturday, March 14, 2009

Semis are Standard

The Big Ten Tournament is a relatively young event, but it's provided a stage where the Illini shine. For the 11th time in 12 years, the Illini are in the semifinals, thanks to a 60-50 victory over a tough Michigan team.

It was hard to watch Chester on the bench with the soft cast on his right hand, limiting his enthusiastic gestures to encourage his team. But there's no question that Chester was involved in the game, even though he didn't play.

Calvin Brock stepped up with excellent primary defense on Michigan's leading scorer, Manny Harris. Brock and the rest of the team held Harris to just 9 points. Jeff Jordan also contributed solid minutes off the bench, including a highlight-reel steal and assist to Calvin.

The Illini played well, matching the Wolverines in the first half, and pulling away with an impressive run early in the second half. Then they withstood the Wolverine's second-half run and hit key shots and free throws down the stretch.

There was lots to like. Mike Davis led the Illini with a pretty shot, plus 22 points, 10 rebounds, 3 steals and 2 blocks. Passing was sharp, and the open man often passed the ball to the more-open man. Trent dished out 5 assists, and Demetri was steady, with 12 points and 6 rebounds. And the Illini recovered from their losing streak that finished off the regular season.

But, reaching their 7th Big Ten Tourney final will be a challenge. It's not easy to beat a good team 3 times in one season, so I would have faced Penn State than Purdue today. But the Boilermakers took care of business, so Bruce Weber and Matt Painter will face off for the 3rd time this season.

Purdue is getting healthier and playing very well. And the Illini will miss Chester. This will be a very tough game for the Illini. Defense is the calling card for both teams, so expect a battle. The Illini will need to rebound well and make what shots they get, besides playing their defensive game.

Go Illini!

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Sunday, March 08, 2009

The #2 Seed--thank you Iowa and Michigan State

Whether they fully deserve it or not, Illinois will have the #2 seed at the Big Ten tournament, which begins later this week. Illinois had a chance to earn that seed without any help but their loss to Penn State on Thursday forced them to rely on some assistance from others.

Iowa and Michigan State obliged with that help by beating Penn State and Purdue, respectively, this weekend. Never thought I would be happy to see the Hawkeyes win a particular game but they gutted one out in double overtime over a Nittany Lions team that, from my point of view, should definitely be in the NCAA Tournament (barring a total collapse in the conference tournament).

Michigan State has clearly established itself as the top team in the conference this season, especially over the past week or two, and has a shot at a very high seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois has had a very good season and, while I hated to see the loss to Penn State, they have an opportunity to regain some momentum during the conference tournament and get themselve ready for the big dance.

At one point, I thought a NCAA 4 seed or maybe even a 3 seed might be possible for Illinois. Now, I think the only shot at a 4 seed would be winning the conference tournament. A seed of anywhere from 5 to 8 seems much more likely now, with a 6 or 7 seed being the most probable.

Illinois could really be helped by at least making the title game of the conference tournament. However, with all of the parity in the conference this season and the surprises that seem to be the norm in the Big 10 Tournament, I don't think any team can take anything for granted.

I knew Illinois would be better this year but didn't anticpate them being this much better. Some feel that they have overachieved and perhaps they have, but most nights I have really enjoyed watching them play. For all the criticism he has taken over the past year or two, Coach Weber and the coaching staff now deserve a lot of credit for getting this team in the position they are currently in. They have done an outstanding job this season and Coach Weber has certainly earned the national coach of the year considerations he is receiving.

I hope we can continue to watch this Illinois team play for a few more weeks but regardless of when or how this season ends, I think all Illini fans should be excited about what lies ahead in the coming years for Illinois basketball. If the returning players continue to develop and improve as much as they did from last year to this year and if the incoming recruits next year and beyond are as good as they appear to be, then the future is indeed bright for the Illini.

For now, let's enjoy the conference and NCAA tournaments and see how far this team can advance. And, again, my thanks to the Hawkeyes and Spartans for their help this weekend--it was much appreciated. Until next time, GO ILLINI!

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Thursday, March 05, 2009


Coach Carmody, we have a new appreciation for how you felt a few weeks ago. That last shot hurt. A lot.

After leading most of the game, shooting relatively well, sharing the ball nicely and keeping it even on the boards, the Illini defense couldn't hold up. Talor Battle found the basket, much like he did in Champaign. And the Nittany Lions came back once more at home to claim their 10th conference win.

Of course, the Illini didn't need to be in that position in the first place, but free throws just weren't there. And that doesn't work on the road.

Despite the disappointing losses to end the regular season, note that this Illini team still over-achieved. Coming off a losing season, the Illini just now started their first losing streak -- at 2. Granted it's the wrong time of year to lose and doesn't help build momentum heading into March, but at this time last year, the prospects for the 2008-09 season looked bleak. And yet the Illini will take some time off before the conference tournament, and they get to skip the first round. And the talk this week was about NCAA seeding, which means that the Illini are expected to head back to the Big Dance in a couple weeks. Not bad.



Sunday, March 01, 2009

March is Here

Michigan State brought all the intensity of March to the Assembly Hall, and put on a performance that deserves at least a share of the Big Ten Championship and earned a 74-66 victory over Illinois. They had 11 steals, 10 offensive rebounds and a very strong performance from guard Kalin Lucas (18 points).

But the Illini showed the fight they have displayed much of the season, relying on strong defense to stay in any game. The Illini were outmatched on the boards, yet Mike Davis and Chester Frazier both had 8 rebounds. Four players scored in double figures, led by Mike Tisdale with 15. And Bruce found a way to get Illinois back into a game where they just couldn't quite pull ahead, relying heavily on Davis in the first half and Tisdale in the second.

Although the Illini shooting touch all but disappeared after Jeff Jordan tied the game on a steal and fast break, they shot 46% for the game, compared to 45% for the Spartans. And they hung in there during an up-tempo game.

But it takes more than home court advantage to recover from 17 turnovers. And, frankly, Michigan State was the more talented, intense team. They executed well. The Illini did well to stay in the game. Although it was a disappointing finale for Chester, Trent and Calvin at Assembly Hall, the Illini played the best team in the conference tough.

And anyone could play in the confernce tourney final in a couple weeks. But first things first -- the Illini head to Penn State this week for their final game of the season. A win won't be easy, but it sure would be nice...



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