Thomas Out

University of Illinois alums and fans were pretty sure Mike Thomas would be gone once the football report was released.  Many of us were surprised that the University decided to to it so quickly.  Opinions vary on the why and what:  the venerable one opines that 1) Beckman and Groce haven’t won enough, 2) Important alums are mad about the State Farm Center re-seating process, and 3) the medical issues with Beckman were a big problem.  Robert at Illiniboard goes to the medical issue, as does veteran scribe Mark Tupper.  Listening to the fellas on the Tay and Jay Show yesterday, they had much the same response.

If you look at the report, it certainly paints Beckman as a bumbler and a boob at best, and a bit of a bully when it came to injuries.  Some of us had thought in those terms on the former points; as far as the injuries – there are a lot of coaches out there who will be looking at the report closely and updating their policies as a result.  It seems like Thomas did what he could once he had awareness of the issue, but in Illinois (land of lawsuits), you have to watch your back with the whole culpable deniability.  I thought Thomas was making progress on many fronts, but when you’re football coach hire turns south and your basketball coach hire is treading water, it’s time to polish up the resume.  Thomas will still be making a lot of money out of this situation, and the real question is what next?

As the Internets told us this week, I is for Interim.  We are now without a permanent chancellor, AD, and head football coach.  The President is new.  Leadership at U of I needs to step in some capacity.  Could we get lucky?  Could we show some courage?  Could we make some hires who can make a difference and set us on a different, better path?  With the state of the state’s finances and political realities, such hires are more difficult than ever.  I’m hoping for sheer luck this time around.

March Malaise

I don’t have a bracket this year.  Just don’t have the inclination.  This is what those awful final three games of the Illini season have done.  No tourney analysis, no matchups that can’t be missed.  Bah.

chief_logo_upsideHow does this happen?  A question for the coaching staff and all fellow suffering Illini.  How do we wake up today and it’s been 10 years since our last deep tourney run.  How do you not show up for half the game against Purdue and the entire game against Michigan, when all you need is one win to get in?  And as far as that NIT game – let’s all do ourselves a favor and try to forget that one…

We’ve known for some time this team was flawed, capable of bad stretches, offensively challenged at times.  But this ending collapse revealed flaws in the whole system – the recruiting, the offensive and defensive systems, the bench coaching…  And now we’re all asking ourselves if John Groce can be the guy.  Because nearly everyone wants him to be the guy:  he works hard, he says the right things, he’s a Midwest and Big 10 type of coach…  Really don’t want to head into this off-season with these kinds of questions about him. Continue reading

Storms and Late Starts

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

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

D Needs Work

Illinois’ loss to Villanova  Tuesday night was a lost opportunity on the big stage.  Just like last week’s game against Miami, this was a chance to beat play a highly ranked team and show something.  The Illini did show something – fighting back from a double digit deficit, playing some good basketball…  But then, once they tied the game at around the 8-minute mark, Illinois proceeded to let Villanova score the next five possession and go 8 for 9 to close it out.  Must…   Defend…  Better….

Say one thing for the offense:  our boys took it inside this time.  Rayvonte Rice and Malcolm Hill went at them.  But the stat of the game:  Rice with no free throws.  And he was hammered multiple times.  Just don’t know how the refs let that happen…

At one point the cameras focused on Jay Wright working the officials hard, and the ESPN guys talked about the ‘strange relationship’ between refs and coaches.  Next play- tic-tack reach-in on Egwu.  Very next play, junk call on Egwu under the basket.  And meanwhile Rice and Hill getting hammered…

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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

Reforms Face Uphill Battle

Illinois has a tradition of inept government, and while some people would like to see changes and reform efforts, the system tends to favor the status quo.  Witness initiatives to add term limits to elected officials.  Both gubernatorial candidates, Bruce Rauner and Pat Quinn, support term limits, though Quinn has found that position a little less pleasing now that he’s attempting to win a second term.

But in order to even get such a proposal on the ballot this November, it needs a 3/5 majority from both (heavily Democrat-controlled) legislative houses and approval from the State Board of Elections.  Ask yourself this – how likely are career politicians like Mike Madigan and John Cullerton to let this happen?  After all, they’ve built their fortunes and power base through longevity.  It term limits did make it onto the ballot, polling indicates the voters would support it – but that’s if, if such an initiative can be worded simply enough for everyone to make sense of it.  Anyone who’s voted in Illinois a few times has seen their share of vague and murky language.  Still, if Rauner threw some money behind it, maybe we could get term limits. Continue reading

Hey, Nike – We are Fighting Illini!

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?

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The Brick Coda

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.

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