Saturday, September 15, 2012

Taking Stock

We've had three weeks to watch Tim Beckman's first Illini team. They've played a variety of competition to give us a pretty good idea of what he's doing with what he's got to work with.

Against a strong FCS team, Western Michigan, the Illini looked promising. Of course, the 64-yard TD pass to Ryan Lankford to open that game helped a lot. Then, against the quality PAC-12 Arizona State Sun Devils, the Illini looked lost. The defense didn't quite live up to their billing in the desert. But this week, against the winless Charleston Southern Buccaneers, the Illini looked brilliant. Reilly O'Toole impressed, with the red zone interception as the lone blemish on a stellar afternoon.

My observations to date:
The Illini have lots of room for improvement, but if they make strides quickly, anything could happen in what appears (so far) to be a weak Big Ten. The jury is still out on Beckman, but other than waiting a bit longer than I think he should have to put the second string offense in against Charleston Southern, he appears to be holding serve in the situation he inherited.

Looking forward to the season...Go Illini!

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012


Although that's what the Illini Men's Basketball team was doing until they showed some fire against Iowa Sunday, I'd rather focus on actual tumbling. Or gymnastics.

The Illini Men's Gymnastic team, currently ranked #3, fell narrowly in a dual meet to #2 Penn State last Saturday. But throughout this season, the talented Illini have been hovering at the top of the rankings. As a team, they are first in the country in both parallel bars and high bar. These boys are worth getting excited about, as senior Paul Ruggeri prepares routines to compete in the Big Ten and National All-Arounds and freshman C.J. Maestas continues to wow judges and win Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors.

Head Coach Justin Spring, Illini alum and Olympian, acknowledges that the Illini haven't found the consistency as a team that he would like, but as the season goes on, he expects his guys to be ready for a strong post-season showing. And since the Conference championship meet is the first weekend in April, Illini fans have something to look forward to after the madness of March.

Keep your eye on these guys. Go Illini!



Monday, February 06, 2012

Another One That Got Away

That was a game that the Illini could have (and should have) won. Yes, the Princeton offense and zone defense are challenging to figure out, but protecting home court is essential to remaining competitive in the Big Ten race.

Credit the Wildcats' Reggie Hearn for a fantastic game. He rarely missed, and was an unexpected boost to his offense with a career-high 20 points. And John Shurna led his team as usual.

But the taller, more athletic Illini lost the rebound battle to the smaller Northwestern lineup, and they had more turnovers, too. And even though Meyers Leonard had a huge advantage in the paint, the Illini just couldn't figure out how to get him the ball every time. Ugh.

This loss is a big disappointment, especially after the win over Michigan State. The Illini have a brutal road schedule coming up, and they need as much confidence as they can muster to play tough and steal a couple games.

There's still plenty to like about the Illini, despite the needed improvement:
The question is, can they improve as they play through February so that they are in a strong position to play well in March? Let's hope so!

Go Illini!



Friday, February 03, 2012


Congrats to the two Illini who will be on the field for the New York Giants in Super Bowl XLVI Sunday night. Guard David Diehl will do his best to keep Eli Manning on his feet, while punter Steve Weatherford will do what he can to keep the Patriots pinned deep. I enjoy cheering for Illini at the highest level - so all the best for a good game on Sunday, guys!



Thursday, February 02, 2012

Beckman's Signing Day

Coach Beck and his new staff completed their first Illini signing day Wednesday, with 19 players sending in their National Letters of Intent. With two guys already on campus, and a committed walk-on, 22 guys will join Beckman's first Illini team.

These boys are mostly 2 and 3 star recruits, but that's to be expected with a coaching transition. Beckman's influence is evident in that 6 guys are from Ohio, but the link to Florida remains strong, with 5 players from that state.

It will be interesting to see if Beckman places a greater focus on Illinois kids in the coming years. Four players are from Illinois, as was the one that got away, an Edwardsville product who chose Nebraska. The Iowa Hawkeyes took a couple suburban Chicago kids, as did Northwestern.

This class includes 3 running backs, a couple linemen from each side of the ball, a wide reciever, a tight end, 9 defensive players, a kicker and a local longsnapper (the committed walk-on). After seeing how the defense has played the past couple years, I look forward to seeing if Beckman's team can get the same kind of production out of these kids.

ESPNU ranked the Illini recruiting class at the bottom of the Big Ten, and based on the success of the top-tier teams in the conference (Michigan, Ohio State, MSU, Wisconsin, Nebraska, etc.), it will likely take a couple years to see if Beckman can build a competitive team.

But the players are genuinely excited about playing for Coach Beck in orange and blue, and that counts for a lot.

Welcome to Illini nation, boys! Go Illini!



Tuesday, January 31, 2012

We're So Blue...

If the Illini and Michigan State didn't make you blue, what would? Personally, I'm a bit nauseous. Poor shooting, abundant turnovers, plenty of fouls, great frustration, injuries and poor decisions on both sides made for an u-g-l-y game.

But a win is a win is a win is a win, and Bruce and his boys really, really needed one. Even if they didn't deserve it.

Defense -- for both the Spartans and the Illini -- was the only real bright spot. The Spartans shut down Meyers Leonard, and the Illini, plus fouls and the flu, kept Draymond Green from having much of an impact. The Illini (and an overinflated ball, according to commentator Dan Dakish) held the Spartans to just 24% shooting. And even with 18 offensive rebounds, the Spartans couldn't hold on to a lead.

Tom Izzo's team, fresh off victory #400 for their coach, did everything they could to let the Illini win. And with their characteristic generosity, the Illini did everything in their power to give those opportunities right back to the Spartans:

All that seemed to fit with the Coaches vs. Cancer blue-out that gave Assembly Hall a much more subdued feel than usual. [Note to the Sports Marketing Department: I'm sure the promotion was great for t-shirt sales, but let's skip this one next year.]

However, Paul did lead the Illini with 18 points and 5 assists during his full 40 minutes on the floor. And Myke Henry provided valuable minutes, points, rebounds and hustle off the bench.

This game tape will provide plenty of fodder for the rest of the conference to figure out how to contain the Illini as they head into a brutal road schedule. And plenty of fodder for Coach Weber and staff to harp on during meetings and practice. The boys left plenty to improve on in this game.

But the win was much needed, so we'll take it.



Saturday, January 28, 2012

Barnyard Basketball

Minnesota's Barn has been almost a home away from home for the Illini in the last decade. The antithesis of the Bryce Jordan Center. Not so this season.

This one hurt. Lots. Especially with that bit of deja vu, as Illinois watched their road lead slip away at the end of regulation much like the Gophers watched their road lead slip away in Champaign. Painful.

The Illini got off to a very strong start offensively, and they looked really good in the first 6 minutes or so as they moved the ball and hit good shots. Defensively, they got a few quick ticky-tack fouls, and that came back to haunt them at the bitter end.

Then the Illini got a bit lethargic, as Minnesota came on strong, closed the gap, and took control of the game with their "second line." The Golden Gophers bench played the Illini better than their starters throughout the game.

But about halfway through the the second half, the Illini chipped away at the lead and took over again. They looked to be in good shape, but a couple big 3s and that old-fashioned 3-point play for the tie that took Meyers Leonard out of the game sucked the heart and fight out of the Illini.

Brandon Paul tried to put the Illini on his back in overtime, but momentum was with the Gophers...and the Illini got their third straight L to entrench themselves in the middle of the Conference standings.

Kudos to the Gophers for some beautiful passing for impressive assists and for finally starting to make their free throws during crunch time.

For the Illini, Paul and Leonard both had great overall games, but they also had plenty of painful, unforced turnovers, which seem to be the team's Achilles heel. They also seem to be just a bit off on their communication and timing on the boards and offensive tip-ins. Those little things can easily make a big difference in these tight Big Ten games.

So, after a solid week of practice and another road loss, will Bruce and his boys be able to pull themselves together? We will find out soon...



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