Pentagram: Road win in Vegas

Coach em up

For the Fighting Illini basketball team, the first real test came late last night against UNLV on the road.  After beating up on some lesser opponents in Champaign, Coach Groce and Company traveled to Las Vegas in preparation for a December stretch that’s looking much tougher.

Illinois went down by 10 at halftime and looked pretty bad the final four minutes of the first half.  We knew the halftime adjustments were coming, though, and Coach Groce indeed had them looking better in the second.  It’s such novel idea to come out of halftime knowing your team will shift and change to exploit identified weaknesses…  We still aren’t used to it.

The Illini out-toughed and out executed UNLV in the second, with good performances by Ray Rice, Nnanna Egwu, and Jaylon Tate.  Final score 61-59, thanks to switching the defenses, running the right set plays in given situations, and hitting some clutch shots towards the end  This is an early season belief-win that will surely help the RPI come March.

Five points in your first road-win pentagram…

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Review: Aquaman – New 52

In Brief:  In the first two volumes of Aquaman from DC Comics’ New 52 line, the creative team of Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, and Joe Prado relaunch and revitalize this familiar if not overly popular character.  In Volumes 1 and 2 (the first twelve issues of the series), Aquaman confronts a mysterious subterranean invasion, then his old foe, Black Manta, while learning new details about the fall of Atlantis.

Pros:  This is an A-team lineup from DC.  Johns, Reis, and Prado have produced a beautiful book, well plotted, with mystery and effective characterization.  Johns’ take on Aquaman is somewhat darker than you might expect, but it works well here.

Cons:  There is a certain formula to the Johns storytelling method, and he certainly doesn’t flip any scripts or pull any big surprises here (not that DC would let him).  Some of the fight sequences seemed off in their pacing and could have used more panels to convey the action.

Full Review:  As we understand it, the idea behind the New 52 was for DC to rebrand/relaunch the books and characters in their universe – everything from issue 1, with a lot of the previous continuity jettisoned to make way for new stories.  I previously picked up the Batman relaunch (and sadly did not review it here) and have the JLA relaunch in the queue.  Aquaman probably would not have made the cut if not for a referral from a friend willing to lend me the first two volumes.

The nice thing about the New 52 concept is it does provide a good jumping on point.  I don’t know much about Aquaman beyond the Justice League, but that doesn’t matter here.  Purists may grit their teeth at the loss or sweeping away of so much back-issue history, but taking these familiar heroes, rebooting them in their prime with some sense of their origins and pivotal moments does provide an effective hook for new readers.  Picking up a book about a character with whom I had no prior investment (as opposed to Batman or the X-Men) was also an interesting prospect, allowing me to read and assess a little more objectively.

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Rough Weekend for I-L-L

chief_logo_upsideFor the Fighting Illini, it started on Friday, when we learned one key recruit who had previously committed to Coach John Groce’s team changed his mind and decided to go with his hometown school.  It continued in Chicago later that day, where a future NBA player and prodigious talent (and potential program changing guy) decided to pad the numbers at Kansas when many (including us) thought he was an Illini lean.  Bill Self and Jerrance Howard haunt us again.  The less said about that the better.  As usual, Robert at A Lion Eye/Illiniboard summed it up best.

Saturday, our first and only family outing to a football game at Memorial Stadium, and the Buckeyes were in town.  Why would we choose that game as our family outing?  Simple, really – extended family from Columbus were in town as well as my sister up from Texas.  The final score of that game 60-35 Ohio State.  And the game was on ESPN, which means they talked about our conference losing streak about 62 more times.

Sunday we learned the Illini hoops game against Bradley was not on TV.  It was on the Big Ten Network’s Digital-only internet feed (a pay service).  Why was this game not on local TV?  People care about watching two downstate schools play?  When the Big Ten Network went live, they assured us these types of things would no longer happen – games would be broadcast on their overflow channels.  Why, Mike Thomas?  And we see another game in December has likewise been relegated to the internet.  Not cool.  To make matters worse, driving back from St. Louis during the first half, and I couldn’t find the game on AM radio after losing the St. Louis station.  What?  No Illini hoops on local radio between Greenville and Divernon on I55?  When did this happen.

Silver linings, though.  Turns out, the Taylorville/Pana FM station was carrying the game once I checked.  Still pretty mad about the TV situation. Continue reading

fail.gov

It would be easy to take shots at healthcare.gov.  But who needs more of that; plenty of electrons have already been killed in that regard.  How about we bring it a little closer to home for government failure.  Yes, we’re Ron Swanson mode.

  • ITEM – Neighboring school district Riverton cut their elementary school art program this year.
  • ITEM – Springfield class sizes continue to grow and at my kids’ school they’re averaging 27 kids per class.
  • ITEM – Even in the neighboring wealthy school district Chatham, they’re dipping into their funds and considering selling some land assets to fun operations.

For Part II of this exhibition we  go to the highways and byways, where rural roads outside the small town of my youth will soon become nearly impassable.  The combination of bad weather and no repairs in years will turn back the clock to Great Depression-like conditions.  Meanwhile, bridges around Illinois age towards structural failure. Continue reading

Pentagram: First Look Illini

Joe B. to the rack

Illinois basketball opened the season this weekend with a pair of wins over  Alabama State (80-63) and Jacksonville State (86-62).  Both opponents were small conference foes who were never going to be competitive unless they shot lights out from three-land.  You can only take away so much from these types of games; but you better believe John Groce and company saw plenty.  And the coaching staff has the definite objective of blooding the five freshmen, building the depth and confidence, and getting prepared for the foul-out slugfests to come next month and in conference play.

We mention the foul-outs due to the new points of emphasis the NCAA has implemented to cut down hand-checking, bumping, and Duke-style phantom charges.  That sound you hear is Matt Painter grinding his teeth at Purdue.  We’re mostly in favor of this, but man are we going to see some ugly games until the players and coaches adjust.

The Illini return just three contributors from last season:  Nnanna Egwu, Joe Bertrand, and Tracy Abrams.  As has been highlighted elsewhere, the rest are transfers and freshmen.  We don’t really know the identity of this team – who will take the clutch shots or grab the vital rebounds.  We do know Coach Groce will have them playing hard and attacking the basket.  How many wins can this group gather; how will they sack up against top opponents? It’ a big question mark.  We’re hoping for post-season play (translate NIT) with a chance to sneak into the NCAA Tourney.

With that in mind, here are five early impressions of the team based on our viewing of the sometimes-choppy Internet broadcast from ESPN 3…

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Books: Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier

In Brief:  Myke Cole’s second book in his Shadow Ops series continues the story of a contemporary Earth in which magic has suddenly reappeared, to be wielded by a small, seemingly random number of people.  In the US, the military has consolidated power and influence over these new mages, training them as elite soldiers and sending them into the parallel world called the Source, to establish a base.  Fortress Frontier follows the renegade Oscar Britton and a new character, Colonel Alan Bookbinder, as they deal with the consequences of this base being cut off from Earth.

Pros:  Cole brings the knowledge and sense of realism of military and special forces veteran (which he is).  His writing is descriptive and effective, and his sense of the various genres – sci-fi, fantasy, military thrillers, comic books – meld together well.  Col. Bookbinder as a lead character will grow on you.

Cons:  The initial decision to move away from Oscar (lead character in the first book) was a little frustrating, and the first few chapters with Bookbinder could have moved quicker.

Review:  The second book in the Shadow Ops series, Fortress Frontier, picks up in the immediate aftermath of Control Point (reviewed here) and actually moves back in time slightly to introduce Colonel Alan Bookbinder.  Bookbinder is a career officer and logistics expert in the Pentagon.  He’s no ground-pounder, as we quickly realize, but one of those competent professionals who keep the tanks fueled, the laptops charged, and the ammo tallied.  But Bookbinder’s life changes rapidly when he comes up latent as a potential magic-user.

Cole weaves in the background and sets up the magic system established previously, with less than 1% of humanity (in a very X-Men mutant-like scenario) discovering they can manipulate other-worldly forces:  magic.  These abilities are organized along basic schools, like elemental (fire, water, earth, air), animal control, shape-shifting, and *other.  Bookbinder doesn’t seem to have a school; he only exhibits an ability to tap and channel magical energy, but because of this the military quickly reads him into its Top Secret magical program and sets him up for training.

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