New Year’s Eve obliged Illini Fans to ply their remote control skills, set up two TV feeds, or head to the sports bar. With the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco and a basketball game at Purdue on concurrently, we chose the sports bar option. The football team, looking energetic if not particularly skillful, defeated UCLA 20-14. As the same time, the basketball team started well before a horrible stretch of play saw them go down by nearly 30 to the Boilers, losing 75-60.
Some general reactions to the two games follow, but specifically we’d like to point to the lack of offensive bite and execution by both teams. Football has had it’s problems all year and again struggled against a UCLA team that had given up 50 or more in previous games. Coach Beckman will need to find some playmakers fast if he wants to compete against decent teams. Weber’s crew continues to struggle on the hardwood, looking positively clueless and inept at times. They seem determined to make up for not getting good shots by turning it over in bad spots. We’ve harped on the ‘Motion’ offense repeatedly and will probably continue to do so until Coach implements some changes or is no longer here. The bottom line is, you have to score to win. And if you’re good on offense, people generally enjoy watching you play. If the Illini are going to move themselves up in the hierarchy in both revenue sports, they need to improve their scoring.
- Illini fans will look back on Coach Vic’s defense wistfully. As bad as the offense was, the defense more than made up for it. They stuffed the Bruins run game and were consistently in the backfield on passing plays. This from a unit that was the big question mark going into the season. As someone who remembers just how bad the D was the year before Vic Koenning took over, it’s hard to imagine that whoever Beckman brings in can do better. Illini fans were plenty upset at Beckman’s inability to keep Vic (though, to be fair it wasn’t all on him). North Carolina fans should be thankful, because Coach Vic will have them dominating their conference in a year or two.
- 18-0 and 36-7 runs. That’s how you lose and look terrible doing it. Purdue’s runs gutted Illini confidence, but to be fair you could see it coming. The guards were making jumpers the first 14 minutes or so to take the lead, but they weren’t driving and weren’t getting it inside to Myers. Then, when Purdue dialed up the pressure and made some shots, Illinois folded fast. The team looked shaky and confused. Weber kept yelling. The team turned it over stupidly and tightened up even more. Weber kept yelling. Once the game was truly out of reach, they calmed down and hit some shots, but game over. Weber kept yelling.
- Hoping to avoid mass defections. Whitney ‘Ming the’ Mercilus, All-American Defensive End and sack master hasn’t announced it yet, but he’s surely bound for the NFL. Who could blame him? Terry Hawthorne, whose pick-6 broke the game for the Orange and Blue to break the deadlock, is another guy who could go early. Bandit linebacker Michael Buchanan has also expressed interest. Coach Beckman and Illini fans will be watching closely on the latter two, who, if they return would be team leaders next year and crucial to continued defensive success.
- Hoops team must improve on D. Face it – the offense is just going to suck at times. We said before the season that Coach Weber would have to build the team into a fearsome defensive unit to be successful. Unfortunately that hasn’t happened. They play well at times, but give up too many dribble drives and collapse too often. Leonard has stopped playing defense at the start of halves to avoid fouls and stay on the floor, when he should be setting the tone. Quick guards get past us too easily. Can the team improve here?
- The Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl…. 30,000 people in a baseball stadium to watch a 6-6 team beat a 6-7 team. Is there any wonder most people think the bowl system is broken? As an Illini fan, I’m glad the team played in and won another lower-tier bowl game. As a college football fan, a playoff system can’t get here soon enough. It’s true that playoffs would drain sponsorship money, which would mean the end of bowls such as the KFH Bowl. That’s OK with me. Even with an 8 or 16 team playoff, you’d still have 20-25 or so bowls that would likely survive and continue to earn money, and 40-50 bowl eligible teams is a lot better than the current setup.
- We are tired of losing to Purdue. Was that the sixth straight loss to Purdue? E’twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson are gone, right? The Boilers have Weber’s number. What’s ironic is they essentially run the same defensive and offensive systems, and if you go by the recruiting rankings, they do it with lesser players. Yet they keep beating us. Is it coaching? Is it personnel? You will note that Purdue’s motion seems to emphasize driving more than the Illini, but that could be a direct result of a guy like Lewis Jackson (from Decatur, you’ll remember, and the Illini did not offer him a scholarship) who always seems to get in the lane. Robbie Hummel also drives first. And Purdue’s hand-check and hack-attack defense is how we should do it. Didn’t really expect these Illini to win at Mackey for their first Big 10 road trip, but I did expect them to play better.