Blame the Refs!

This weekend, Illini fans were treated to one of the strangest, most head-scratching, end-of-the-game referee decisions we have seen.  It was a potential game changer with about 30 seconds to go, and because of the thin margins for teams like Illinois and Michigan State, it was a potential season changer as well.  Hard to give this call justice, but here it is.

Your basic hard screen-out on a bonus free throw…  What you don’t see in that little clip (or actually you start to see it) is the Spartan player looks over to be sure the ref is watching, then doubles over in agony as if he’s been groin-smacked.  Maybe he was…  Sure doesn’t look like it.  Anyway, the refs called nothing, so they went to the video screen for a replay and assessed a technical foul – fouling out Jaylon Tate, giving the Spartans two more free throws and the ball, and sending the Illini Nation into a collective rage.  Fortunately the Spartans only made one FT, gave up the ball, and Illinois won in the end.  But speaking to my brother and others, we can’t remember ever seeing such a poor decision, so clearly influenced by the home crowd and the reputation of the coach (Tom Izzo, Dean of Big 10 hoops coaches).  This call resulted in a twitter slap-fight between ESPN talking head Dan Dakich and the mayor of Champaign, Don Gerard (no vote-trolling there). Continue reading

Shifting to Cover

Victory Badge

We haven’t had much analysis on Illini Hoops of late – mostly because the results have been disappointing and hard to figure.  When they play better on offense, they can’t seem to sustain their defense.  The shooting is off.  Then Rayvonte Rice broke his hand this week on the heels of a two-game winning streak…

And Illinois responded like they needed to – backs against the wall and a home win against a Top 10 Maryland team.  It was a really nice performance.  Good to see the coaching staff mix up the rotations and the defenses to come up with a plan.  Good to see guys Like Hill, Egwu, and especially Jaylon Tate step up. Continue reading

Camping Illini

Everyone’s camping this week.  Not real campfire and s’mores camping, no, but pre-season sports camp.  Our kids at soccer, the high schoolers in various sports, on up to to the college kids.  As coaches with the younger set, pre-season camp is our means to get in more practice, conditioning, and training without throwing the parents into open revolt.  If you said, “OK, we’re practicing four times this week and each session is extra long,” it’s taken a bit differently than the pre-season camp concept.

Victory Badge

Across the state in Rantoul, the Fighting Illini football team have been camping at the one-time Air Force Base, doing two-a-days, knocking off the rust, and forming the depth chart.  Camp Rantoul has a long tradition for the team, going back several coaches, which typically ushers in the Beemsville football season.  Since we don’t really follow the NFL that closely, Illinois football is our pigskin outlet.  A questionable outlet, some might say…  As my uncle observed this past weekend, “it’s not easy being an Illini fan.”

We’re optimistic this year, though.  We see an above .500 season, a bowl, and gradual progress.  The reasoning is pretty simple:  start with this schedule.  It’s a lot more manageable than recent years.  Toss-up games are at home.  No multiple game road-trips.  Avoiding some of the better teams from the Big 10 East.  Also, this is the first season in (too) many where the team has both the offensive and defensive coordinators returning.  Bill Cubit on offense was a must-retain, and Tim Banks on the D gets the chance to show what he can do with a little more experience and his guys.  So the players don’t have to learn new systems for the first time in years, and you would think that little bit of consistency would pay off. Continue reading

7, 31, and 10.4

7, 31, and 10.4…  7 of course being the current Illini hoops losing streak, the worst in years.  Last night the Orange and Blue got down big to loathsome Iowa – 21 down in fact in the first half.  Texted my brother that they looked football-team bad.  Now that’s saying something…  People where booing in the Hall State Farm Center, which not only ticked off Coach Groce (and yours truly), it seemed to trigger something.

chief_logo_upsideIllinois started playing hard and making some shots, and they roared back.  Went to halftime only down four.  The Illini actually took the lead and built it to five in the second half, but then Iowa countered. And the emotional toll of such a big comeback as well as the now familiar lack of execution in the final 3-4 minutes yielded another defeat.   There were plays to be made at the end, and Illinois couldn’t make them.  Egwu couldn’t quite catch the ball on an in-bounds right in front of the basket (would’ve been a dunk).  Abrams’ contact drawing-drives drew no fouls, while on the other end Marble’s drives (even with no contact) got the whistle.  Classic Big 10 Refs.  Jon Ekey airmailed an open three (he was cramping up from too many minutes).  And down we go.  Again. Continue reading

Early Gut Check

chief_logoThe Fighting Illini basketball team have almost no margin for error.  We’ve seen that the last two games.  With Rayvonte Rice nursing an injury and far from himself, Illinois managed to drop two they should have won – two games they needed to win against Northwestern and Purdue.  Most likely, those two losses have sunk any NCAA tourney aspirations.

So now Michigan State comes to town, looking like the top team in the conference (7:00, BTN).  They’re very tough as usual, but they too, have some injuries.  It’s a home game, and Coach Groce says Rice is nearly 100%, so we’re saying there’s a chance…  And the Illini better take it.  Road games against good teams are on the horizon.

To beat the Spartans, a couple of things need to happen:  Ray Rice needs to be himself again and drop in about 20 or so.  Tracy Abrams needs a strong game offensively and he must avoid turnovers at key points.  Egwu needs to snap out of it and provide something on offense (which means he has to play and avoid foul trouble).  And someone – Ekey, Hill, Nunn, Bertrand – needs to hit some timely 3s.  As we said – little to no margin for error.  Steal a win and keep those slim post-season hopes afloat.

We admit it’s a lot to ask.  We realize it’s unlikely.  All the same – go Illini!

Pentagram: #1 De-Creaned

It’s been a rough 2013 for the Fighting Illini.  The promise of Nov-Dec. wins, surprising confidence and offensive execution, and a new uptempo attitude all slipped away as the Big 10 slugfest continued.  Realistically, the NCAA tournament has slipped off the radar.  Or maybe not…

Griff, the winner

One way to get over the hump is to end your home losing streak with a win over Indiana.  Who happens to be #1 this week…  On a last second shot…  After coming way back from behind in the last five minutes.

It just so happened that the Hoosiers were ranked at the top this week – a happy coincidence of scheduling and other teams losing.  They are not #1 (especially now), and certainly not the best team we’ve seen; that would be Michigan.  But we’ll take it.  If someone gets to knock the smirk of Tom Crean’s face, it might as well be Illinois!

Five points in the upset Pentagram…

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Response Plan Needed

The scouting report on John Groce’s Illini is in, and the best conference in the country will now take full advantage.  Hit them hard early and keep hitting them.  Against Minnesota  a karate chop to Brandon Paul’s nose sent him to the locker room for about ten minutes to stop the bleeding.  At Madison yesterday, Wisconsin gashed Tyler Griffey above the eye and he needed stitches.

In three Big 10 losses (including the last two games) the opponents have been physical from the opening tip and Illinois hasn’t responded.  The shooting has been awful, rebounding a joke, and the defense has regressed. We’ve seen this before.  Most recently in last season’s memorable collapse.

Part of this is the inevitable ebb and flow of a season – particularly a perimeter oriented team in a bruising conference like the B1G.  Part of it is identified player deficiencies that that better level of coaching in conference play always seems to hone in on.  But how much of it is attitude and response by the players and coaches?  We will soon find out.

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