It’s been many, many years since we failed to make it to at least one Illini basketball game during the season. For me, this streak very likely goes back decades to when I was in high school. Yes, we’re those kind of fans… So when I looked at the calendar today and saw that tonight’s final home game against Nebraska begins at 9:00, and realizing that if I take the kids to this game they wouldn’t get home until 1:00 or so, and knowing that we have our own basketball practice tonight along with the new PARCC standardized tests at school this week, well, looks like no Illinois hoops for us this year.
I suppose I could go myself, maybe try to talk my brother into going with me. Get home late and be tired tomorrow. But with his new mini-Rube at the house this probably isn’t an option. It’s a shame because I really have a lot of respect for our team’s seniors – especially Nnnanna Egwu and Ray Rice – and would like to cheer for them in person one last time. Continue reading
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
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
TV executives know we’re home and watching, and they oblige us… Lots of sports programming available for consumption, and in Beemsville that meant Fighting Illini basketball the last two evenings. Nice wins over Indiana State and Baylor to take the Las Vegas Invitational tourney. This hoops team is Aggressive with a big ‘A’, allowing them to win even when shooting poorly. Very fun to watch, and we’ll break them down later.
This morning we have some English Premier League. No games really stand out this weekend, but hey, it’s on. Then we have Illinois vs. Northwestern at 11:00. Two 5-6 teams battling for a low-level bowl… Battling for the Abe Lincoln LOL Hat… Battling for state supremacy (not really, because NIU is better than either)… It’s the Illinois Pension-Reform Bowl. Whoever wins, the citizenry come out a little poorer… And yes, most likely, Tim Beckman’s job hangs in the balance. Like any true Illini fan, I’ll be rooting hard to beat Fitzee and the ‘Cats, but as an objective watcher of the program, I won’t be too sad if a loss initiates a coaching change.
This afternoon we have the second leg of MLS Eastern Conference Playoffs: New England vs. New York in Foxborough. The Red Bulls are down 2-1, needing some goals, and their top scorer is out with yellow cards. Can the old warhorses, Henry and Cahill summon forth the magic again? Tomorrow we get Seattle vs. LA from Century Link Field in the Western Conference. The Galaxy hold the 1-0 advantage here and looked much the better team in the first leg, but Seattle are so tough at home. LA will have to score to close this out because the Sounders are going to get some goals. Should be a fun one: Dempsey, Martins, and Yedlin v. Donovan, Keane, and Gonzalez.
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.
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
A big fuss in Champaign-Urbana this week: the much anticipated Nike uniform brand update happened at the Krannert Center, with Illini athletes from the various sports teams modeling the new look. It’s a pretty big deal for the University of Illinois in this era of brand identity, intensive marketing, and team gear residual sales. We get a new look, a unified new font, an updated shade of orange that’s easier to mass reproduce, and 1LL1NO1S. We get two logos, one new and one very familiar:
We have Nike marketing guys talking about how they studied the history and tradition of the University of Illinois athletics, how they incorporated the Galloping Ghost, etc. Our type face that “leans forward ready to take on the competition”, with “sleek and powerful serifs”. It looks good – don’t get me wrong. The design elements are slick; I really like the look of the football uniforms; the orange really pops, and the Victory Badge look fantastic on the volleyball shirts. Check the official gallery.
But they seem to have forgotten one very important detail: We are FIGHTING ILLINI. If you look at the new unis, you see a lot of 1LL1NO1S, but you don’t see much Fighting Illini. The question for most of us: was this a Nike call or a University call?
Coach Groce applauds an assist
Illinois finished the basketball season with a one point loss at Clemson on Sunday. It was a painful gain to watch: open shots, plenty of chances, but the ball just would not go in. 14% from three and 37.5% from the field doesn’t get you many wins. It was the type of offensive performance we’ve grown accustomed to this year.
If you look at the gross stats on ESPN, you’ll see the Illini ranked in the bottom quarter of all Division I schools for points per game (64.6 points, ranked 311). There are a few good teams that score that little, a very few, but the remaining teams in the NCAA Tourney all score more. Illinois shot 40.9% from the field (320th) and 31.9% from three (293rd), still in the bottom quarter to bottom third of all teams. In assists, we were 10.1 per game, good for 330th, which is bottom 10%. There are lots of other statistics that measure tempo, offensive efficiency per possession, etc., but bottom line, this was a bad offensive team. Hopefully we won’t see worse offense in many years to come.
The real question: how did this team actually manage to win 20 games and make it to the post-season? Defense, obviously, and grit and toughness. When Nike unveils their rebrand concept soon, they damned well better place ‘FIGHTING’ above the ‘ILLINI’ on the basketball jerseys. And yes, this toughness and sound defense can keep you in a lot of games, even allow you to steal a few. You can build an identity around ‘Fighting’. This last game against Clemson, for example: Clemson shot close to 50% and out-rebounded Illinois, and yet we were one better possession the final minute away from stealing that game at the end.
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.
Illinois 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
You can look at the box scores, you can read the game summary. It ends up as a very important win for the Fighting Illini. The annual Braggin’ Rights border battle against Missouri in St. Louis rarely fails to live up to the hype. We watched as a family, with me trying to control myself and explain things to the kids. The wife worked on stuff on her laptop and sent several arch looks my way when I started talking to the refs and the TV. There was yelling and jumping at the end, when Ray nearly stole it and forced a bad three at the buzzer. Now the holidays can begin as they should: with Mizzou defeated and that border trophy on its way back to Champaign.
Yes, this was an important win for Illinois. That signature non-conference victory that could be very big come March. Beating a ranked team, and pulling it out at the end with a strong finish. A confidence-builder, a toughness win.
The toughness factor is what we’ll hang our hat on. Tracy Abrams led the way there, driving, drawing fouls, and finishing. And those two made free throws with four seconds left… Ray Rice made plays to keep us in the game even if this wasn’t his best offensive night. Jon Ekey with the clutch three. Bertrand and Egwu and the freshmen chipping in at key points. Statistically it was very even, but the Illini seemed to get all the loose balls and tough rebounds the last eight minutes or so. That will win you close games.
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…