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Sporting Event Power Rankings


What a month for the all-around sports fan. Opening Day for baseball, the NCAA Final Four, the Masters, the Frozen Four, and the start of the NBA and Stanley Cup playoffs. Those six events span less than three weeks of our calendar, so naturally, I've spent a lot of time on social media, and at the metaphorical water-cooler talking about a wide array of sports.


That's fun for me, especially since I now live in the Midwest. Normally, I'm probably not talking much hockey -- I never grew up with an NHL team, nor did my university have a varsity squad. I did grow up with an NBA team -- the Seattle Supersonics. Now that they don't exist, it's difficult to get into basketball.  Even so, I'm drawn to the TV or computer to find coverage of these things.  I'm a terrible golfer, and am disappointed when Tiger Woods isn't at the Masters, so why was it on my TV all day? That got me thinking.


What are the best sporting events in America?


It's a list that will be different for every person, so if I'm going to make one, here are my parameters.

1) Is it a must watch? Do you look at the date months from now, and know that's what you're going to be doing that day?  If it's a weekday, do you consider calling in sick from work just to watch?

2) Appeal to the non-sports fan.  Some of us are always going to try and watch everything.  I'd watch a Padres-Royals World Series because it's the World Series... My wife would not.

3) Level of interest when you don't have a team/player in the fight - You may be a proud alum of the North Dakota Fighting Sioux, and care far more about the Frozen Four than the Final Four, but let's be honest -- tens of millions aren't filling out hockey brackets.

4) My opinion.  I do have personal biases, but I'll try and balance those out with rules 1 through 3.


Here are my sporting event power rankings:


10. WIMBLEDON.  The All England Club is the Augusta National of tennis, and like its golf counterpart, it's the centerpiece of the season in their sport. A tradition unlike any other? Wimbledon is 57 years older than the Masters, played at the same facility, on the sport's original surface -- grass. Give me a Federer-Nadal final, and I'm stuck inside on a beautiful July day.  Therein lies its problem, though. It's reliant on star-power and rivalries to draw in the otherwise-wouldn't-watch crowd. Its lack of broad appeal knocked it down a couple spots on my personal list, but it hangs in at number 10.


9. THE WORLD CUP.  I can hear soccer fans already drafting their emails…


“To: Idiot sports guy


The World Cup is the best event in the world’s most popular sport. You must hate soccer, so I hate you.”


Yes, the World Cup is very likely the world’s most popular event. Soccer is probably the world’s most popular sport (and purists will not like that I’m calling it soccer), and I have great friends who’ve played at a high-level. I thoroughly enjoy watching them play. But blame the fact that I’m an American, and don’t have the world view of the beautiful game, but I can’t put it higher in terms of general interest in the USA. Out of curiosity, I looked up the history of World Cup winners, and was surprised to find out that the best the U.S. has ever done is a third place finish in 1930 -- 84 years since our boys even finished in the top four. I’ll keep an eye on things this year, but with the knowledge of the one thing I, and the average unattached fan, remember most from the 2010 Cup -- Vuvuzelas.


8. THE NBA FINALS.  There were days when this would have been on many, including my, top-3.  Magic vs. Bird.  Jordan vs. Malone.  Olajuwon vs. Ewing.  I was a kid in the northwest glued to a TV to watch teams from Houston, Chicago, Salt Lake City and New York.  Fast forward to 2013 - People IN THE ARENA for game six thriller between Miami and San Antonio decide they’ve seen enough, and leave -- missing one of the most incredible moments from the finals since Jordan’s flu game.  Perhaps that’s the problem.  Today’s dynasties are in San Antonio, Miami, and potentially in Oklahoma City -- not New York, L.A., and Chicago. Even the highest rated NBA Finals in the last decade had only about 65% of the rating of the average finals from 1982-1998. That means they’re missing the non-sports, or unaffiliated fans, thus slipping to number 8 on my list.


7. THE MASTERS.  We just got to watch this, so it’s fresh in our minds. No fanbase is more adamant -- or romantic -- about their event than golf fans about the Masters (cue the slow pan to the blooming azaleas, accompanied by ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi in his dramatic, slow-talking style). It does have a different feel than the others - almost like the Opening Day of golf season. Golf has a way of drawing in the un-affiliated fan just because it’s a sport we all can play, to some degree. This would be in my top-5, if not for what we just witnessed.  No Tiger Woods, and the tournament had its lowest TV rating in 10 years. This, while I would argue the sport, overall, is becoming more popular with more marketable stars. There’s still only one superstar, and without him, we once again lose those fringe sports-watchers.


6. THE STANLEY CUP FINALS. 10 years ago, because of parameter No. 4, this would not have appeared on my top 10. Maybe it’s because I’m in an area where the Blackhawks seem as popular as the Bulls, but my fandom of hockey has grown a lot.  I’ve always liked going to games, but I’ve never have used the term “we” to describe a team, like I have in other sports. While the ratings still pale in comparison to others lower on this list, I must also consider trends. The Blackhawks win over Boston last June was the most-watched Finals on record, and their title-clinching game-6 win was the 3rd-highest rated NHL game to air on NBC since it picked up coverage of the NHL in 2006.  And as we were yet again reminded by the Blue and Blackhawks on Thursday, a playoff overtime period is about the most thrilling thing in sports. The league is growing in popularity, not to mention the champs drink booze out of the championship trophy.


5. THE BCS NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP. May it rest in peace. While we all gritted our teeth at Bill Hancock and his eternally-flawed BCS system, this singular event never seemed to disappoint. Generally speaking, we always saw the best two football teams play each other on the final day of the college football season. No other sports league can claim that. If I were to put together a list of the best games (all sports) in the last decade, the 2006 title between USC and Texas just might be number one.


4. THE OLYMPICS.  The sporting event we can’t miss, and the one we hardly remember. We swell with American pride for two weeks every couple of years, and forget virtually every minute as soon as it’s gone. But for those two weeks, why does it all feel like can’t miss TV?  I never in my life anticipated I’d be planning my day around watching a swimming competition. Michael Phelps came along. The colors red, white and blue have a way of doing that. I can’t imagine people knew much about the group of college kids asked to represent the U.S. on the 1980 men’s hockey team, but as the fictional Herb Brooks said in the movie Miracle (and may have said in real life): “The name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the name on the back.”  We don’t need to know the athletes, or even the sport.  We’re watching and rooting for our countrymen.


3. THE WORLD SERIES. In my very unscientific poll of fellow sports fans, I’ve concluded that a majority would prefer a World Series win for one of their favorite teams than any other sports championship there is. While I tend to agree when it comes to my childhood teams, I can’t help but wonder why this more than an NBA title, or even a Super Bowl? Easy answer for me -- baseball is the sport that made me love sports as a child.  My thought: It’s the history. Babe Ruth was on 7 World Series-winning teams before Bart Starr (Super Bowl I’s winning QB) was even born. Even Ruth was just eight-years-old when Cy Young led the Boston Americans (Red Sox) to the 1903 title. Call it romanticism, but these names remain as prominent today as any currently in the game.


2. THE NCAA TOURNAMENT.  It’s definitely the most drawn-out fun any sporting event provides. And whoever came up with the idea to fill out a bracket deserves a monument. Five-year-old girls fill them out. Ninety-year-old men do. The president fills his out on national TV. The 64 (or 68) team, win-or-go-home format is just so much fun. Anyone who filled out a bracket (and an estimated 45% of America did) cared about the outcome of literally every single one of the first 32 games. You just can’t buy that kind of interest.  And while the quality of play can sometimes be suspect (free throws…), nothing matches the day-in, day-in passion in those 67 games in March and April.


1. THE SUPER BOWL. The game, the $3 million-per-spot commercials, the halftime show, the parties, the food. Zoo orangutans and elephants pick winners. Everyone has their reasons, but everyone watches. If you don’t, it’s because you hate America. Super Bowl XVIII was the most watched TV program in U.S. history.  In fact, the 21 most-watched programs in American history are Super Bowls. I don’t know what I’m going to eat for breakfast tomorrow, but I know on February 1, 2015 that I’m going to teeter on a food coma, with a cold beverage in my hand, and scream at a television for a game involving two teams I more than likely don’t even care about. So are about 100 million other people.




THE NFL DRAFT. It wins the award for “Best Sporting Event Without Actually Being a Sporting Event,” but even though it may bring more viewers than some of the sports on the list, I just couldn’t, in good conscience, let it break into the top ten.


MLB OPENING DAY. Why does it always feel like this is the first nice-weather day of the year?  Someone needs to look that up.


THE FROZEN FOUR. It’s got the catchy name, and the niche following, but to those in the midwest and northeast: There are many outside your regions that don’t know this exists.


THE LITTLE LEAGUE WORLD SERIES. Also the title of one of the underrated NES games. Sometimes kids are just more fun to root for.


Lincoln, Neb. -- Well, this just got a whole lot more interesting.  Nebraska will open the 2013 Big Ten season without their starting QB of four years, Taylor Martinez.  The senior endured a turbulent first few years in Lincoln, to say the least, but he remains the centerpiece for the Huskers' high-powered offense.


In his place will be redshirt freshman Tommy Armstrong, Jr., whose numbers were very good against FCS South Dakota State (12-of-15 for 169 yards, 1 TD).  We'll find out how he'll fare in his first game against a Big Ten opponent.


After Illinois' walk-through on Friday, head coach Tim Beckman downplayed the impact of Martinez's injury, and says he expects the Huskers to pick up right where they left off.


To be sure, Nebraska seems to score at will.  Coming into Saturday, they rank 19th in the country in total offense with 496.3 yards per game. Digging deeper into those statistics, I found a pretty strong correlation between the overall performance of their opponents' defenses, and how Nebraska fared against them in their match-up.

Opponent Opp. Total Defense Rankings  Yards Gained by Nebraska
UCLA 40th 331
Southern Miss    61st 479
Wyoming 88th 602
S. Dakota State 95th (in FCS) 645


The defensive numbers are another story.  The Huskers are ranked 12th in total defense, and 10th in scoring defense in the Big Ten.  And once again, they seem to take what their opponents give them.  Good and bad.

Opponent    Opp. Total Offense Ranking   Nebraska Points Allowed
UCLA 5th 41
Wyoming 13th 34
So. Miss 118th 13
S. Dakota State 55th (out of 122 in FCS) 20


What does this tell us about the Huskers?  What you see is what you get -- limit the bad offenses, look helpless against the good ones.  Illinois is ranked 34th in total offense. The Illini won't -- excuse me, shouldn't -- have a problem getting down the field.


That, above all reasons, is why the Martinez announcement by the Huskers perked up the ears of Illinois fans everywhere.  Armstrong, Jr. looked fine… against the 95th-ranked defense in the FCS.  Illinois' defensive numbers aren't great, but Armstrong, Jr. will be in for a bit of a surprise Saturday.


Nebraska remains favored by just more than a touchdown in the game, and even with a freshman making his second career start for the Huskers, that seems fair.  The Illini will try and snap a conference losing streak that reached 14 games at the end of last season.  For the first time in awhile, it feels like they have a real opportunity to do so.



2012 Illini Football By The Numbers: The Good, The Bad, and The Worst


I promised myself in an earlier blog I would try to stop being such a pessimist when it came to this football team. Be more open-minded, I told myself.  However, I knew at some point during camp, I'd be digging further into 2012.  The numbers aren't doing me any favors when it comes to my quest for optimism.


There are only a couple of stats that really matter to a football team.  For Illinois -- even though they're trying to forget it -- it's 2-10 and 0-8.  The overall, and conference, record of the Illini will again be the most important measuring stick of success this coming season, but, of course, a compilation of all the numbers will show us how a team earned those wins and losses.


As much as a quarterback will say he doesn't pay attention to efficiency stats, and a coach may scoff at yards-per-game numbers, they all matter when evaluating your team.  An offensive coordinator was fired in the offseason.  There was a reason for that, and it was pretty darn clear in the numbers.


I knew the stats weren't good for Illinois in 2012, but I decided to take a closer look -- where the Illini ranked in the conference, and where they ranked nationally.  The full table of numbers -- every team stat recorded by both the Big Ten and NCAA stat archives -- is below.




Kicking: I use the term "good" relatively, but in reality, the kicking game was the best part of the Illinois repertoire in 2012. Junior-to-be Justin DuVernois booted all 73 punts for a team that ranked 1st in the Big Ten, and 23rd nationally in net yards per kick.  Place-kicking wasn't perfect, but wasn't terrible -- the young duo of Nick Immekus and Taylor Zelewski combined to go 8-for-12 (67%), and 22-of-22 on PAT (never mind that only two teams attempted fewer PATs -- something that requires touchdowns).


Pass Defense:  Again, relatively -- and clearly a byproduct of playing in the run-first Big Ten -- the Illini were middle-of-the road in the conference in this category, but top-20 nationally (conversely, their rushing defense was ranked 95th). If anything, their performance defending the pass can be explained by their personnel on defense last season.  Akeem Spence, Glenn Foster and Michael Buchanan were among an attack the amasses a not-entirely-terrible 21 sacks.  Terry Hawthorne and Ashante Williams led a secondary that put on enough pressure down field -- and each are gone, most at NFL training camps.  Sure, it's not great news that they've all moved on, but for all the losses, their leading tackler last season (Mason Monheim - 86 total tackles) was a freshman, and they get a huge piece back in linebacker Jonathan Brown.




Non-passing related Defense: While holding down a top-20 spot against the pass, the Illini were 95th in rushing defense. Seven different individuals rushed for 100+ yards in a game against Illinois, with another handful topping 90. The most important stat, of course, is the one that measures scoring - and the Illini gave up 32 points per game in that category, or just about twice as many as they scored.


Turnovers: One of the nine categories in which they ranked last in the conference (106th in the country), finishing -12 for the season (-1.0/game).  As bad as the were in this category, there was a few stretches in which this problem was magnified:


-At Michigan (10/13) - Illinois came out of the half down 17-0, and 8 minutes later it was 38-0.  How?  On their first play of the half, Illini QB Reilly O'Toole threw an interception that was returned inside the UI 30 yard line. Michigan took four plays to score. Minutes later, on their third drive of the quarter, O'Toole was sacked, he fumbled, and the Wolverines picked it up on the Illinois 6.  This time, it took just 2 plays for Michigan to find the endzone. It was the "snowball effect" head coach Tim Beckman talked about so often last season.


-At home vs. Minnesota (11/10) - Already 0-5 on the Big Ten season, the Illini found themselves with a rare opportunity.  It was the 4th quarter, and they had the ball, down by a touchdown, with 3:24 left.  With a chance to lead his team down the field to force overtime, QB Nathan Scheelhaase tried to rush into the middle of a crowded pile of lineman. Pushing for an extra yard or two, Scheelhaase lost the handle on the football, which rolled slowly over the pile of lineman, and into the hands of Minnesota's Derrick Wells.  Three plays later, Minnesota made it 17-3.




The offense: The 16.7 points per game were 2.6 points lower than the next-lowest scoring team in the Big Ten (Iowa).  It's worth noting that against FCS-level Charleston Southern, the Illini scored 44 points (CSU finished 2012 with a 5-6 record).  That means, in the other 11 games (the ones against FCS opponents), Illinois scored 14.1 points per game.  That's well below the only team that finished worse than them in the rankings, Idaho (15.83).


They weren't effective running the ball, passing it, and were ranked 100th or worse in the red zone, on 3rd down, and in turnover margin.  Passing efficiency, also sub-100 in the rankings, is worth another look.  While their 113.4 (ranked 102nd) was bad enough, their starter, Nate Scheelhaase, put up a 105.9 - ranking 110th out of 116 qualifying QBs in 2012.  


Will it get better?  It almost has to.  There's a new offensive coordinator, Bill Cubit, and thus far he's shaking things up, he's more of a presence on the sidelines, and he's getting good reviews.


Let's kick this season off!


2012 Stats


    Big Ten National
PATs 22-22 (100% T-1 T-1
Pass Def. 193.7 ypg 2 11
Punting 39.2 ypg 6 19
Penalty Yard/game 49.6 6 41
Opp. 1st Downs 29.6/game 5 43
Time of Possession 30:14:00 T-7 51
Total Def. 387.6 ypg 10 53
Red Zone Def. 81.5% 8 62
Sacks 21 10 78
Field Goals 8-12 (67%) T-8 83
Scoring Def. 32.1 ppg 11 93
4th Down % 40% 11 95
Rush Def. 193.9 ypg 11 95
Opp. 4th Down 61.5% 10 96
Rushing Off. 127.8 ypg 11 97
Interceptions (total) 7 T-10 100
Pass Eff. 113.4 10 102
3rd Down % 34.1% 12 103
Red Zone Off. 74.2% 12 105
Turnover Margin -1.0 12 106
Pass Offense 168.8 11 107
Kick Returns
18.8 11 107
Pass Def. Eff. 149.5 12 107
Sacks Allowed 39 12 111
First Downs 16.4/game 12 116
Punt Return 1.6 avg. 12 118
Total Offense 296.7 ypg 12 119
Scoring Offense 16.7 ppg 12 119























































The Tale of Two Practices

WR Justin Hardee (19) and DB Dillan Cazley (8) go up for a ball during the morning session at the opening day of Camp Rantoul.

Each unit had their highs and lows during day one at Camp Rantoul. It didn't look, though, like the offense was going to hit many highs after the morning session on Monday.
"I didn't think they played very well," said offensive coordinator Bill Cubit -- specifically referring to his QBs -- after the morning practice in Rantoul. "There was some high pressure at the end (of practice) which we've got to react to a lot better, and get the wide outs a little more sense of urgency, especially in those situations."
Indeed, there were glaring issues, in what was the first full practice open to the public and media. Monday, the team ran through their "situations" drill -- 3rd and 8, in the red zone with 4 seconds left in the half, and a variety of other high-pressure plays teams will encounter during a game.  An array of tipped-passes for interceptions, overthrows in the endzone, and field goals that sailed wide-left ensued.
You know, the kinds of results that are viewed differently by, say, a defensive coordinator.
"I thought they flew around, had fun, enjoyed it. I thought we had a lot of juice and energy," said DC Tim Banks. "Pretty good first practice today."
As we found out Monday, opinions change quickly, and so do results.
Just about six hours after they trotted off the field in the morning session with poor reviews, the offense spent most of their first scrimmage shredding the defense, and just about everyone had a hand in it.
Runningbacks Josh Ferguson and Donovonn Young were each effective.  Senior QB Nathan Scheelhaase and WR Ryan Lankford provided the highlight of the night -- a 97 yard TD connection.

"I wanted to see, could we air it out at that point?" said Cubit.  "Yeah that worked out pretty well."

Also making a strong first impression in what was a public unveiling of sorts, was freshman QB Aaron Bailey. The 6'2", 220 lb. QB connected with fellow freshman Marchie Murdock twice, on back-to-back passes early in the scrimmage.

Bailey came back down to earth a bit, throwing an interception, and nearly tossing another, but Cubit liked what he saw, for the most part.

"He's still rough around the edges at times, "Cubit said. "Things people up in the stands probably wouldn't see, but he's coming along."

The defense managed a few positive plays after the "first half," including a forced fumble and recovery by Houston Bates.

It wasn't a great overall showing, however, and head coach Tim Beckman blamed it on youth.

"I think on defense they play hard," said Beckman. "We just made some young, young mistakes, and we've got to grow up quick."

In all, the morning and evening sessions could not have been more different on Monday.  After the night was over, Scheelhaase let on that some of the licks they took earlier in the day may have helped during the scrimmage.

"Having those pressure situations are important for what we're going to deal with during the season," said Scheelhaase.  "He wants to put a lot of pressure on us as an offense and put us in a lot of situations that make us uncomfortable, so when we get in the game and deal with those things, it won't be an issue."


-LB Jonathan Brown - Beckman said in the morning that Brown sat out drills because of a shoulder issue, but when he didn't play (as planned) during the night scrimmage, Beckman revealed that Brown was recovering from a "minor concussion."  Beckman did not give a timetable for a return to practice.

-TE Matt LaCosse - concussion.  Expected back Wednesday.


Receptive to the Changes

Senior TE Evan Wilson catches a pass on the first day on camp

It happened, and I just realized it: I'm a pessimist about Illini football.  For the past nine months, I thought I was just a realist... a common belief among pessimists.  When it comes to the 2013, they've been guilty until proven innocent. As I prepare my stories for our newscast, and jot down notes for the blog, I'm beginning to notice how entirely negative my writing seems.  I write a sentence like "at least in THIS area, they aren't entirely terrible."

Delete. And start over.

To be fair, I'm not a cheerleader for Illinois -- or any of the teams I cover -- either.  I enjoy watching success, but my goal is to be objective. Maybe, though, it's time to be objectively optimistic, or at least open to the idea that maybe -- only maybe -- some of these changes making their way through Illini camp will work.

I imagine a lot of Illinois players are going through the same thing.  Last year stunk, no question.  It was the kind of year that makes a player evaluate not only if they want to keep playing football at the school, but keep playing football at all.  It makes them wonder if their coaches know what they're doing.  It makes them question their teammates' abilities, and maybe even their own.

That's what makes "buying in" so important, and it's why I believe players are genuinely excited about the changes coming this season (or "anxious," and head coach Tim Beckman has been repeating).

Today, I'm focusing on the wide receivers.  A group that, collectively, put together the 107th (out of 120) passing attack in 2012.  Even worse were the total offense and scoring offense numbers, ranking next-to-last in the nation.

"We keep it as a little chip on our shoulder," senior WR Ryan Lankford said this week, clearly hearing how far the expectations have fallen for his group.  "It's something that gives us a little extra boost, and a reason to work even that much harder, and prove people wrong."

Lankford led the group in receiving in 2012 with 469 yards, and was the deep threat when Illinois QBs had the time in the pocket, which wasn't often (there I go again being negative).  Lankford's yardage number, though, ranked 17th in the conference.  Six Big Ten teams had two players who caught for more yards that Lankford.  The top five receivers, in the conference had more yards than Lankford and Darius Millines (2nd on the team) combined.  Millines, by the way, was kicked off the team in May for a violation of team rules.

Changes needed to be made -- to the personnel and the plan -- and they were.   Both co-offensive coordinators were let go.  Former Illini receiver Mike Bellamy was promoted to receiver's coach.  Beckman went out and grabbed Western Michigan head coach Bill Cubit to be the offensive coordinator -- which, so far, looks like a great addition.

They threw out the old playbook, and are still working in a new one.  Downhill runs, five receiver sets, four tight end sets... you're standing next to an offensive lineman one play, then running a deep route the next.  Okay, we don't know exactly how they'll run it, but from everything we hear, it's complex, and requires versatility from all skill positions.

"Everybody's got to know the whole offense," said Bellamy. "You can't just say, 'I'm a tight end, this is all I do,' because you'll get frustrated by not having a lot of plays come your way and you're not going to get a lot of playing time."

The good news: The Illini return six of the top seven receiving yardage leaders from last season (two are runningbacks).  The least we can hope for is the natural progression of their production.

They've also added pieces.  Steve Hull, known for the last three seasons as a safety, is now a receiver again.  If you don't remember, Hull was recruited as such in the 2009 class, but was moved to defense only weeks before the 2010 season.   He sat out of practice on Thursday with a hamstring injury, the severity of which is unknown.  Still, he hopes to regain some of the talent that got him a Big Ten scholarship as a pass-catcher.

"We brought him back here (to the WR position) in the spring," said Bellamy.  "He looked like he was polished. He looked like he had been playing it for four years."

The other notable addition is Martize Barr.  He's a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, the 2012 NJCAA national champions.  He caught 31 passes for 498 yards (16.1 yards per catch).  Little can be made of those junior college numbers, and when I suggested he came in with at least a tiny bit of college experience, Beckman quickly said "Well, junior college."  Nonetheless, they expect him to play a role.

"He's picking up what we're doing," said Beckman.  "He can make plays in space.  He'll definitely be a factor with us offensively."

Is Barr (who was a 3-star recruit out of high school) a hidden gem?  Is Hull going to be a difference-maker?  Even the coaching staff doesn't know that yet, nor do they feel comfortable predicting such things.

If anything, though, the team is proving that they're full-on committed to change, and are admitting that what was done last year just didn't work.

So, as a reformed optimist, I'm willing to accept that admission.  I'll be watching the receiver position as I will most any position group on the team:  Skeptical, but open-minded.


- Steve Hull - with the aforementioned hamstring issues.  Sat out practice Thursday, though the severity of the injury is unknown.

- Eric Finney - knee injury.  The junior college transfer, expected to play the STAR position for the Illini, was carted off the field during Wednesday's practice.  He also missed the entire 2012 season at the College of the Canyons in California with an undisclosed injury.  Beckman says he hopes to have Finney back sometimes during camp Rantoul.  

Illinois offensive coordinator Bill Cubit (left) shares a laugh with QBs Aaron Bailey (#15), Wes Lunt (center), and Nathan Scheelhaase (right) during their first day of camp.

We're ready to talk football again here on the blog! The Illini started their "fall" camp Monday, beginning with a week of split-squad workouts. Unfortunately we won't be able to attend every practice and interview session, but I'll be updating the blog periodically throughout camp with any updates or big news.

If Sunday night's "Hall of Fame Game" between the Cowboys and the Dolphins wasn't enough of a reminder, we're still aways off from actual football. While it was nice to see the NFLers in full pads and uniforms, there are kinks to be worked out at all levels.

There's a lesson in that, as we enter a 2013 Illinois football season that is sure to be full of pessimism. Fans don't need the reminder, but I'm going to write it anyway -- The Illini were 2-10 last season, which included an 0-8 performance in Big Ten play. Going back to Ron Zook's last year, the Illini have lost 14-straight conference games.

A look at the schedule this year, and we see home games vs. Wisconsin, Michigan State, Ohio State, and Northwestern. The most winnable, if you will, are road games - at Purdue and at Indiana. The pessimists believe that conference losing streak will reach 22 games. The optimists, frankly, wouldn't bet on a whole lot better.

As much as the lingering sting of 2012 will cloud much hope for 2013, head coach Tim Beckman and company are buying into a better outlook for the fall.

Call it "cautious optimism."

"I'm anxious," Beckman said. "We're all trying to get better. I'm proud of the commitment the last 8 months. We're going on the 9th month now, so let's keep this thing rolling."

He's anxious about his defense, one that ranked 53rd in total defense (387.6 ypg) and 93rd in scoring defense (32.1 ppg). A poor performance by a defense that had three of its starters drafted into the NFL, and two more signed as free agents.  The defensive line is inexperienced, and the backfield is young.  Defensive coordinator Tim Banks has a tough job to do.

Beckman's anxious about his offense, led by 4th-year starter Nate Scheelhaase. Scheelhaase's 2012 campaign was interrupted by an injury in game one. Still, he played in 10 of 12 games, and saw his completion percentage go from 63.2% in 2011 to 60.6% in 2012, and his passer rating drop from 133.4 to 105.9 (ranked 110th out of 116 qualifying QBs).

Though Scheelhaase wouldn't have admitted it last year, he let on at Big Ten Media Day last month that things may not have "clicked" when it came to the game plan -- that there was a comfort level during the 2013 spring that just wasn't there the year before. If that truly was a problem, logic would suggest that downward trend in production shouldn't continue.

For as tough as the 2012 was (to play for the players... and to watch for the fans), there was no negativity at day one of practice, and very little discussion about the struggles of 2012.

There was, however, a significant amount of buzz over a new face on the practice field. Freshman QB Aaron Bailey made his first appearance for Illinois, and as ESPN Radio's Jeremy Werner put it to me during practice, "he looks the part."

Listed at 6'2", 220 lbs. he certainly does, though the coaches say he's still very raw.

"I was impressed with his arm strength," said Beckman. "Decision making has got to improve, no question, but it's day one and he's a freshman."

"He needs some work, technique-wise," said new offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. "He really went out there and jumped right in, so that's good to see. We were impressed, but we've got to get him up to speed."

Without pads, running plays at about 75% speed, it's hard to evaluate anything we saw on day one of camp, but I came away from Monday's morning session with one question: Is Bailey the QB of the future (he'll compete with Wes Lunt in 2014), or is he creating a QB battle at Illinois right now? With expectations as low as they are, this could be the most intriguing storyline throughout camp.

INJURY NOTES (did not participate in practice)

-OL Scott McDowell - Foot injury during spring ball

-DL Vontrell Williams - Broken foot

-DB Ben Mathis - Knee injury during summer workouts - expected back "as soon as possible"


CHICAGO - They may not have ended the season with a load of momentum, but in their pocket was still that flair for the dramatic.

Brandon Paul became the 3rd Illini senior this year to win a game with a shot at the buzzer, draining a fadeaway jumper as time expired to win 51-49, and eliminate Minnesota from the Big Ten Tournament.

It may not have been a "win-or-lose" heave like DJ Richardson's overtime winner at Hawaii, and it may not have taken down number 1, like Tyler Griffey's backdoor layup against Indiana.

But the Illini certainly wouldn't trade this one for either of those, as the move on to face 1-seed Indiana in Friday's 11am Game (...speaking of buzzer-beaters).

Thursday's scores:

Illinois 51 Minnesota 49 F
Michigan 83 Penn State 66 F
Purdue 55 Nebraska 57 F
Iowa 73 Northwestern 59 F


-Boosting the resume. Not that there was much doubt that the Illini had a great NCAA Tournament resume, the win over Minnesota was their 6th against RPI top-25 teams. Only Indiana (8) and Duke (7) have more. Something that looks even better: Illinois is 2-0 vs. RPI top-10 teams, though that will get put to the test on Friday.

-Only half as good without Paul. Brandon Paul scored 25 points Thursday. The rest of the Illini scored 26. Paul was 10-of-16 from FG (62.5%) and 4-of-8 (50%) from 3PT range. The rest of the team: 8-of-40 FG (20%), 2-of-17 3PT (11.8%).

-Emptying the bench. Michigan coach John Beilein nearly played his entire roster in the Wolverines' first round win over Penn State. Fourteen Michigan players made the box score - The only one that didn't make the floor was senior Josh Bartelstein, who hasn't registered a point in just 7 minutes of playing time this season, and hasn't seen time in more than a month. Of the 14 that played, 9 registered stats in the box score.

-Michigan removes thorn in their side. Penn State gave Michigan fits this season. In Ann Arbor on Feb. 17, the 0-12 (conference) Nittany Lions were tied with the Wolverines at halftime, but were held off at the end. Ten days later, Penn State finished the job, earning their first conference win with an 84-78 win over then-#4 Michigan. Thursday, Penn State was within 3 with 15:00 left. This time, the Wolverines left them in the dust, immediately following with runs of 12-0 and 21-5, to earn a game with Wisconsin on Friday.

-Huskers hang on. Nebraska won its first-ever Big Ten Tourney game, maintaining control over 7-seed Purdue from start to finish. The Boilermakers' attempts at taking control from the three-point line fell short, missing on each of their first 8 3-point attempts. Ultimately a 9-0 run by a team that went just 15-17 was just enough to hold off Purdue.

-Northwestern needed to get this season over with. Yesterday. The Wildcats we dealt an unfortunate blow with some mid-season injuries, but don't let Penn State's record fool you... Northwestern was the least competitive team in the conference the last month and change. The Wildcats scored just 22 points in the first half in their opening round loss to Iowa (though, I'll admit that much better than the 15, then the 12 they put up against Illinois and Wisconsin in consecutive games in February). They managed to put themselves out of contention in a hurry, and ultimately end a forgettable season on a 9-game losing streak.

-State line of the day (this one wasn't difficult): Brandon Paul: 25 pts., 62.5% FG, 5 reb., 2 assists, 2 steals + game winner.

Friday's schedule

11am: #1 Indiana vs. #8 Illinois - ESPN
1:30pm: #4 Wisconsin vs. #5 Michigan - ESPN
5:30pm: #2 Ohio State vs. #10 Nebraska - BTN
8pm: #3 Michigan State vs. #6 Iowa - BTN


Trending Upward
It wasn't the prettiest one in the five-game winning streak, but Illinois hung on for a 64-59 win over Penn State.  Senior G DJ Richardson once again led the Illini in scoring with 18 points, which is his average during the current streak.
In a mere 15 days, the Illini went from 2-7 in the Big Ten -- and on the doorstep of irrelevance -- to an even 7-7, and an apparent lock for the NCAA Tournament.  The winning streak, and how they've gone about it, hardly seemed possible after the Illini suffered 6 losses in 7 games in the first half of the conference season.
If you read the blog, you know I'm a numbers guy.  I like breaking down the stats to find explanations for certain trends -- and I'll start off with my favorite stat:
The Illini are now 20-0 when outscoring their opponents.
Okay, duh... but it is nice seeing 20 wins, isn't it?
Really, that's the only stat we're going to care about in March, but it's interesting to look at the areas of improvement during this latest streak.  To make it simple, I'm cutting the conference season in half, looking at the numbers of the first 9 games, and what we've seen from the second half of the season (5 games).
In terms of measurables, here are Illinois' splits:
  First  9 Last 5 Difference
Points For: 64.5 67.2 +2.7
Points Against: 69.8 56.8 -13.0
FG % 40.5%          41.7%        +1.2%
Opp. FG % 45.3% 39.0% -6.3%
3PT % 25.4% 34.4% +9.0%
Assist-Turnover Ratio:    0.73 1.20 +0.47
Rebounding Margin -2.1 -2.4 -0.3
As you can see, almost every single one of those numbers is better, with the exception of rebounding (Illinois was outrebounded 29-18 vs. Penn State on Thursday).
There's definitely an easy argument for the improvement: The opponents haven't been as good.  The average RPI ranking of those first nine opponents (51.1) is much better than that of the last 5 (93.4).  Penn State's RPI (200) easily drags down any schedule strength that Indiana (7) provided.
The splits, though, are more dramatic than an easier schedule might give you - and remember, the Illini lost to both Purdue and Northwestern in that 2-7 start, then beat both by 20+ in the past two weeks.  Things clearly have improved.
Right at the end of the cold conference start, coach John Groce identified the two major areas that got them in the rut: Shot-making and transition defense.
Shot-making was the big one.  The Illini had a few too many games where their 3-point percentages were in the teens early in the year, and it seemed they had yet to figure out how to gain an advantage shooting 2-pointers.  The 3-point percentages are 9.0% higher, and much closer to an "average" percentage.  For a team that shoots 22 three-pointers a game, that's six more points per game beyond they arc. Six very important points.
The most dramatic change, however, is on the defensive end.  Coach Groce tells us his players are "grading out" better and better each week, and "buying into the system".  That system, and how it's measured, remains a mystery to those outside the program, but the proof is in the pudding -- Illinois is a much better defensive team.  Their points-allowed average through the first nine conference games (69.8) would rank 253rd in the country.  They're points-allowed in the last five games (56.8) would rank 12th.
Personally, I don't think there's a debate anymore: Illinois is going to the Big Dance.  They could go 0-4 to finish the season, and they'll still get in.  Now, I don't think they'll lose out, especially with a home game against Nebraska left on the schedule. If a trip to the NCAA Tourney was the end goal for the '12-'13 Illini, then mission accomplished.
We've seen, though, what this team is capable of doing.  The key will be finding out if these improved numbers are part of an upward trend, or a temporary spike in production.
If it's the former, this should make for an intriguing March. 


Can the Illini get into the NCAA Tourney at with a 7-11 conference record?  What about 6-12?

It's all about "body of work."  That's a phrase Illini fans will hear a lot in the five weeks leading up to Selection Sunday.

For a team that once looked like an NCAA Tournament lock, then took a nosedive toward the Big Ten cellar, that phrase is going to become extremely important.

After a 2-7 conference start, the Illini took down No. 1 Indiana Thursday, their first win over a top-ranked team since 2004.  Suddenly, the NCAA Tournament talk started again.

One thing Illinois has going for them right now is that the Big Ten is having a great year.  By all metrics (and by just watching the games), it's the best conference in the country.  A heavyweight fight between then-#3 Indiana and then-#1 Michigan put that to rest a little more than a week ago.

Because of that, we started wondering if an 8-10 record in the Big Ten would be good enough for Illinois.  I think we could now agree that it would.

The question turned into: Can they finish 7-11 in conference, and still get in?  That would require the Illini to finish the season 4-and-4.  I say they absolutely will.

A common misconception of NCAA Tournament selection is that you have to finish in a certain "place" in your conference, or have to have a certain record.  If the Big Ten gets 7 teams in the tournament, it's entirely possible that a team that finished 8th or 9th gets in, in lieu of a team that finished ahead of them in the standings -- Illinois, by the way, is 10th as of Sunday afternoon.  ESPN's Andy Katz -- who's a greater mind for NCAA Tournament selection committee logic than I, said it best.  It's about "who you beat, where you beat them, and when you beat them."

Here's Illinois' resume:  They now have wins over Gonzaga (RPI 12 - on the road), Indiana (13), Butler (15 - in the Maui Invite Title), and Ohio State (17). Their four wins over RPI top-25 teams are the most in college basketball.

Yes, they have losses against Northwestern (RPI 93) and Purdue (121).  You could argue which loss is worse -- the former at home, the latter against a 100+ RPI team -- but upon further review, a couple losses like that aren't going to sink Illinois' chances.

I've spent plenty of time in previous blogs talking about how the Illini have had significantly better performances against teams like Ohio State and Gonzaga than they have against teams like Eastern Kentucky and Northwestern. I've tried to make sense of the better FG percentages against RPI top-50 than against RPI 100-150.  That's not something the selection committee is going to get hung up on, and it's worked in Illinois' favor.

Would you trade the win over Indiana with the Big Ten opening loss against Purdue?  No?  Neither will those picking teams for the tourney.

Here's a look at Illinois' remaining schedule:

@ #18 Minnesota
vs. Purdue
@ Northwestern
vs. Penn State
@ #3 Michigan
vs. Nebraska
@ Iowa
@ #10 Ohio State

Again, they'd have to finish 4-4 to have a 7-11 conference record (20-12 overall).  Make up your own mind as to whether they can get there.

This is where I'm going to go out on a limb: I say it's possible that they can finish 6-12 in the Big Ten, and still make it.  Possible.

Remotely possible.

It's not about who you lose to, it's about who you beat, and Illinois would need the "right" wins to make that remote possibility become a reality.  That means one of those road wins vs. a ranked team would need to be in there.  Maybe the Illini go into Columbus and find out they just have OSU's number this year.  Maybe they keep the mojo from a win over #1 Sunday night vs. Minn, esota.  That would leave them needing only two of those remaining home games.  That resume would include 5 wins over RPI top-25, two of them on the road.  Little else will matter to the selection committee.

As it is, I don't think Illinois will finish any worse than 7-11 in conference.  I think they'll sweep the rest of the season at home, and get at least a win at Iowa or Nebraska.  If not, they've shown a knack to knock off the best of them.

It should be a fun month.

It was as ho-hum as a signing day can be in Champaign-Urbana.

There were no last-minute changes of heart, or surprise commitments.  No players getting tattoos of a school they committed to, then de-committed from.  No moms running off with their son's letter of intent.

ESPN didn't show up to the home or school of an Illini recruit, nor did a recruit line up a bunch of hats in front of himself to try and build the suspense.

But even an average, no frills 2013 class was just fine for Illini coach Tim Beckman, who knew what he was up against after the results of 2012 -- a 2-10 record, which ended on a 9-game losing streak.
"We didn't win very many football games, but we were still about to get one of the top recruiting classes - at least the top half of the Big Ten, in the top half of the country," said Beckman.
The class rankings vary depending on where you look.  At the end of the day Wednesday, Illinois' recruiting class was ranked 40th by Scout.com, and 46th by Rivals.com.
They definitely weren't the 40th, or 46th best team in the country last year, so you could say the Illini "out kicked their coverage."

The focal point of this class going forward will be Aaron Bailey, the 4-star quarterback recruit out of Bolingbrook.  Depending on which publications you're reading, Bailey's anywhere between No. 9 & 11 in the nation's QB rankings.  The highlight of his career includes an 8A state title in 2011, a season in which he ran for close to 2,000.  Obviously, the Illini were looking for another dual-threat guy under center.
"I've been around this business my whole life, and Aaron Bailey is as good a person that I've ever met," said Beckman.
"He kind of walks into a room and you know he's the quarterback.  I think Aaron brings a lot of that to the table, on top of being a really good player," said Alex Golesh, Illinois' recruiting coordinator.
Bailey ran an option offense in Bolingbrook, and with limited opportunity to pass, there are questions about his arm.
"Can he throw?" Golesh asked himself.  "We've seen him throw on numerous occasions.  We think he's going to be in really good shape."
Aside from Bailey, the rest of the class is scattered with 2-and-3 star recruits, which include big DT Bryce Douglas (6-foot-2, 330 lbs) -- who's also the son of Illini basketball great Bruce Douglas -- DL Jarrod Clements (6-foot-3, 275 lbs), and RB Kendrick Foster (Peoria), who is 5th on Illinois' all-time rushing list with 6,401 yards in his high school career. 
The 15 signed on Wednesday will join ten players who've already enrolled in classes at UI, five of whom are junior college transfers -- the most JuCo recruits for Illinois since they had seven in 1998.
Recruiting ratings are an inexact science, and unless you're Ohio State -- raking in too many 5-star recruits to put on the field -- what's more important is what happens to these guys after they're recruited.  I spent a few years covering the Boise State football team, where "below average" recruiting classes turned into BCS bowl winners, and those middling recruits who went mostly unnoticed out of high school, are now getting their paychecks in the NFL.
I think of one in particular, that Bears fans now know well: Shea McClellin.  To say he was under the radar out of high school in 2007 would be an understatement.  He was a consensus 2-star recruit on the 57th ranked recruiting class in 2007.  In his 4 years, his teams went 50-3, won a BCS bowl, and he was a first-round NFL draft pick.
Take that anecdote however you like.  The assessment that labels this class as "average" only mattered until today, and from this point forward, it's on this coaching staff to develop their talent.
Still, it doesn't hurt to get to know the newest Illini, so here are their player capsules, as provided by UI Athletics:
Aaron Bailey, QB
6-2, 220, Bolingbrook, Ill. / Bolingbrook HS
High School Coach: John Ivlow
Intended Major: Sports Broadcasting
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jermaine Martinez - Graduate Teaching Assistant, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

High School: Four-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked No. 135 nationally, No. 6 in the state of Illinois and the No. 11 quarterback in the nation by Scout ... Ranked No. 150 nationally, No. 4 in Illinois and the No. 9 quarterback Rivals ... Ranked No. 150 nationally and No. 6 in Illinois and the No. five quarterback by 247 Sports ... Special mention All-State by the Chicago Tribune in 2012 ... Missed several games as a senior with an injury ... As a junior, led Bolingbrook to the 2011 Illinois Class 8A state championship ... Rushed for just under 2,000 yards in 2011 to earn all-sta, te honors.
Personal: Born Nov. 30, 1994... Parents are Oliver and Sharitah Carter ... High school teammate of Illini offensive lineman Robbie Bain ... Favorite athletes are pro quarterbacks Tim Tebow and Tom Brady ... Says his parents were most influential people in his life for all the support they provided ... Grew up a big fan of former Illini quarterback Juice Williams ... Uncle is Trent Jackson, his mother's brother, who played basketball at Wisconsin ... Biological father is former NFL wide receiver Aaron Bailey.



Caleb Day, DB
6-1, 190, Hilliard, Ohio / Hilliard Darby HS
High School Coach: John Santagata
Intended Major: Undecided
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Anthony Fontana - Associate Director, Admissions and Enrichment Academy, College of Business

High School: Four-star recruit by Rivals and three-star recruit by Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked No. 218 nationally, No. 12 in the state of Ohio and the No. 10 athlete in the nation by Rivals ... Ranked as the No. 23 athlete in the nation and the No. 25 player in Ohio by 247 Sports ... As a senior, had 45 tackles, five interceptions, 13 PBUs and two fumble recoveries to go along with 60 rushes for 463 yards and nine touchdowns, and 32 catches for 490 yards and six touchdowns ... Earned first-team All-State, first-team All-Metro, All-District and All-Ohio Central Conference honors as a senior ... As a junior, had 23 tackles with six PBUs and two fumble recoveries, plus 39 rushes for 261 yards and four touchdowns and 19 catches for 359 yards and five touchdowns ... All-Ohio Central Conference, All-District and honorable-mention All-State as a junior ... As a sophomore, had 31 tackles, four interceptions, eight PBUs and three fumble recoveries along with 52 rushes for 281 yards and two touchdowns and eight catches for 240 yards and four touchdowns ... Earned three letters in football, three letters in track and two letters in basketball at Darby ... State qualifier in 110 hurdles as a junior ... State qualifier in 300 hurdles as a sophomore ... Helped Darby to OCC championship as a senior.
Personal: Born Jan. 21, 1995...Parents are Alex and Kristi Day ... Grandfather, Ted Day, played basketball at Central State University ... Involved in "Pals Tutoring" as a mentor to elementary children ... Father was the most influential person in his athletic career ... Lebron James is his favorite athlete ... Would like to be an athletic director following his football career.


Dionte Taylor, WR
6-0, 170, Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. / University HS
High School Coach: Roger Harriot
Intended Major: Business
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jewell White - Assistant Dean, Admissions and Recruiting, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 103 wide receiver in the nation by 247 Sports ... Helped University High win the Florida 3A state title as a senior with an undefeated 13-0 season ... Team was also named the 2012 MaxPreps Small School National Champion ... Team finished 2012 as top-ranked team in South Florida and No. 2 overall team in Florida ... Earned Associated Press 3A second-team all-state honors ... Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel All-County selection ... Miami Herald All-County pick ... As a senior, had 40 catches for 577 yards (14.43 yards per catch / 72.1 yards per game) and seven touchdowns ... As a junior, had 34 receptions for 530 yards and five touchdowns ... Four-year varsity letterwinner in football ... Also lettered in track in 2012.
Personal: Born Sept. 29, 1993 ... Parents are Schreaka and John Taylor ... Nickname is "D.J." ... Chose Illinois over Nebraska, Syracuse, Central Florida, Louisville, Cincinnati and Boston College among many others ... Active in his school's art institute ... Favorite athlete is NFL quarterback Michael Vick because "he set a trend that led to a new breed of athletic quarterbacks."


Merrick Jackson, DL
6-2, 320, Cahokia, Ill. / Althoff Catholic HS
High School Coach: Ken Turner
Intended Major: Undecided
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Carrie Mulvaney - Academic Advisor, Division of General Studies

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 18 player in the state of Illinois by ESPN, No. 30 by Scout, No. 21 by 247 Sports and No. 27 by Rivals ... Ranked as the No. 56 defensive tackle in the nation by 247 Sports ... As a senior, led Althoff to a runner-up finish in the IHSA 2A State Finals ... Racked up 87 tackles, 21 tackles for loss, three sacks and two touchdowns, one on a pick-six and the other as a goalline fullback, during senior season ... Named second-team All-State by the Chicago Tribune and first-team All-Metro by the St. Louis Post-Dipatch in 2012 ... Played in the 2012 St. Louis High School All-Star Classic, which pits St. Louis-area players from Illinois and Missouri against each other ...As a junior in 2011, posted 65 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, two sacks and two fumble recoveries ... Lettered three years in football.
Personal: Born Dec. 6, 1994 ...Mother is Rosie Hall ... Favorite athlete is NFL great Ray Lewis "because he gets me pumped up."


Jarrod Clements, DL
6-3, 275, Dayton, Ohio / Trotwood Madison
High School Coach: Maurice Douglass
Intended Major: Accounting
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jewell White - Assistant Dean, Admissions and Recruiting, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked the No. 37 defensive end nationally and the No. 31 player in the state of Ohio by Scout ... Ranked as the No. 32 defensive end nationally and as the No. 38 player in Ohio by 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 20 player in Ohio by Rivals ... Limited to eight games during senior season due to injury but still totaled 39 tackles, six sacks and 10 tackles for loss on the year ... Helped team to state runner-up finish in 2012 ... Four-year letterman in football and three-year letterwinner in basketball.
Personal: Born Dec. 3, 1994 ... Nickname is "Chunky" ... Father is Jarrod Clements Sr., and mother is Keisha Freeman ... Cousin, Roy Roundtree, was a receiver at Michigan ... Helped Dayton Dunbar HS to state basketball title ... Favorite athlete is NFL linebacker Ray Lewis "because he's so inspirational and leaves it all on the field." ... Named to his high school academic honor roll as a junior.


Marchie Murdock, WR
6-1, 180, Arlington, Texas / Mansfield Legacy HS
High School Coach: Chris Melson
Intended Major: Communication
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jermaine Martinez - Professor, Department of Communication

High School: Three-star recruit by ESPN and 247 Sports ... As a senior, caught 49 passes for 770 yards and 13 touchdowns and was named team MVP ... As a junior, caught 34 passes for 475 yards and five touchdowns ... As a sophomore, caught 18 passes for 165 yards and one touchdown ... Mansfield Legacy is in District 15-4A in Texas ... First-team All-District as a sophomore, junior and senior ... Named to the Fort Worth Star Telegram Super Team for Dallas-Fort Worth area ... District sophomore player of the year ... Lettered three years in football, three years in basketball and twice in track ... First-team All-District in basketball his final three years in high school.
Personal: Born Jan. 7, 1995 ... Parents are Marchie Sr., and Cheryl Murdock ... Father played basketball at Arkansas State from 1982-85 and is the head boys basketball coach at Mansfield Legacy H.S. ... Member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes ... Favorite athlete is NFL great Randy Moss ... Earned the Teacher's Choice Award for the 2010-11 school year ... Following his football career, would like to be a sports reporter ... Says his father most influenced his athletic career "because he pushed me to be great at what I do."


Darwyn Kelly, DB
6-1, 195, Upper Marlboro, Md. / H.D. Woodson HS
High School Coach: Greg Fuller
Intended Major: Business
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jewell White - Assistant Dean, Admissions and Recruiting, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 4 player in Washington, D.C. by 247 Sports and the No. 5 player in D.C. by Rivals ... Ranked as the No. 66 safety in the nation by 247 Sports ... Had 72 tackles as a junior and 30 tackles in a shortened senior season at H.D. Woodson High School ... Totaled nine interceptions (five as a junior and four as a senior) his last two seasons ... Earned honorable-mention All-Washington Catholic Athletic Conference honors as a junior ... Lettered in track as a sophomore and junior and all four years in football ... Played at Carroll High School of the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference as a junior.
Personal: Born June 10, 1995... Father is Darwin Kelly ... Mother is Chavella Kelly ... Biggest thrill in sports is returning interceptions for touchdowns, of which he had two against Wilson H.S. in 2012 (78 and 95 yards) ... Favorite player is NFL great Ed Reed ... Was on the Academic Honor Roll three years in high school ... Grew up following D.C. native Tavon Wilson's career at Illinois ... Says his father most influenced his athletic career by getting him involved in sports at an early age and encouraging him to do his best ... Is active in his church and has volunteered his time at a local soup kitchen in the D.C. area.


Paul James III, DE
6-3, 240, Miami, Fla. / Norland Senior HS
High School Coach: Daryle Heidelburg
Intended Major: Business
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Anthony Fontana - Associate Director, Admissions and Enrichment Academy, College of Business

High School: Four-star recruit by ESPN and three-star recruit by Rivals and Scout ... Ranked No. 200 nationally and No. 41 in the state of Florida by ESPN ... Ranked as the No. 16 defensive end in the nation by 247 Sports and the No. 20 defensive end nationally by Rivals... Ranked as the No. 60 player in the state of Florida by 247 Sports ... All-Dade County pick by Miami Herald ... No. 3 recruit from Miami-Dade and Broward Counties by Miami Herald ... Florida 5A second-team All-State selection ... Helped lead the Vikings to the 2012 Florida 5A state championship.
Personal: Born Aug. 4, 1994... Mother is Niquita Wooden and father is Paul V. James Jr. ... Uncle, Prentice James, played football at Hofstra ... Favorite athlete is NFL great Ray Lewis "because of the way he plays and his successful career." ... Said his family most influenced his athletic career "because they remind me of the struggles I came from."


Michael Hermosillo, WR
5-10, 200, Ottawa, Ill. / Ottawa HS
High School Coach: Trent Swords
Intended Major: Communication
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Nicole LaVoie - PHD Candidate/Instructor, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

High School: Three-star recruit by Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 76 athlete in the nation and the No. 28 player in Illinois by 247 Sports ... Played running back in high school ... First-team All-State, first-team All-Big 12 Conference and Big 12 MVP as a senior ... Ottawa Times and LaSalle News-Tribune area player of the year in 2012 ... Chicago Bears Illinois High School Player of the Week the first week of the 2012 season ... Chicago Tribune Honorable Mention All-State ... As a junior, was the Big 12 MVP in football and baseball, first-team All-Big 12 and LaSalle News-Tribune Athlete of the Year ... Second-team All-State baseball player and Ottawa Times baseball player of the year ... Helped Ottawa to the state quarterfinals with 11-1 overall record and Big 12 championship ... Played in the Chicago White Sox Double Duty Classic All-Star Game as a sophomore and junior ... Helped Ottawa to the Big 12 football championship as a sophomore in 2010.
Personal: Born Jan. 17, 1995... Parents are Krysta and Gilbert Hermosillo ... Uncle is former Major League pitcher Dave Stewart (A's, Dodgers, Phillies, Blue Jays and Rangers) ... Favorite athlete is Lebron James because "He's the best at what he does." ... Member of the National Honor Society while in high school ... Would like to have a career in broadcasting once he is finished playing football ... Says his father is the most influential person for his athletic career as he "pushed me to be great." ... Was on his high school academic honor roll all four years ... Considered a top baseball prospect.


Kendrick Foster, RB
5-9, 190, Peoria, Ill. / Richwoods HS
High School Coach: Roland Brown
Intended Major: Kinesiology
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Amy O'Neill - Undergraduate Advisor, College of Applied Health Sciences (Kinesiology and Community Health)

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Won four letters in football and track and field while at Richwoods ... Totaled 6,401 yards (No. 5 in career rushing yards in Illinois history) and 78 touchdowns (73 rushing) with an average of 7.8 yards per carry during his high school career ... Had 13 career games with more than 200 yards rushing and 14 career TD runs of 50 yards or longer ... Rushed for at least 100 yards in 33 of 41 career games ... As a senior, rushed 236 times for 1,749 yards and 21 touchdowns ... As a junior in 2011, rushed 333 times for 2,421 yards (No. 10 single-season in Illinois history) and 33 touchdowns ... As a sophomore in 2010, rushed 232 times for 2,004 yards and 22 touchdowns ... As a freshman in 2009, rushed 20 times for 227 yards and two touchdowns ... Earned Champaign News-Gazette all-state honors as a sophomore, junior and senior ... Named All-State by the Illinois High School Football Coaches Association as a senior ... Earned Peoria all-area and Mid-State 6 All-Conference honors as a sophomore, junior and senior ... Was Peoria Journal-Star Player of the Year as a junior and senior, the first repeat winner since the inception of the award in 1985 ... Played in the Semper Fidelis All-American Bowl All-Star game, where he served as team captain of his team.
Personal: Born April 19, 1994...Mother is Mindy Sullivan and father is James Foster ... Former Washington Redskin Charles Mann is a cousin of Kendrick ... Was a volunteer helping children at Friendship House ... Biggest thrill in sports was being selected captain of his football team ... Favorite athlete is NFL running back Adrian Peterson, saying "he inspires to bring the best of out me." ... Nominated for the African American Hall of Fame Museum in Peoria ...Most influential person in his life is his mother and has a goal of taking care of her some day.


James Crawford, DB
6-2, 195, Deerfield Beach, Fla. / Saint Thomas Aquinas
High School Coach: Rocco Casollo
Intended Major: Business
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Anthony Fontana - Associate Director, Admissions and Enrichment Academy, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 58 safety nationally by 247 Sports ... Earned all-state and all-county honors in 2012 ... Grabbed five interceptions and had 65 tackles as a senior while helping St. Thomas Aquinas to a 2012 state championship.
Personal: Born Dec. 2, 1994... Mother is Molynn Allen and father is James Crawford, Sr. ... Father played football at Virginia Tech ... High school teammate of Illini running back Dami Ayoola ... Favorite athlete is NFL great Charles Woodson ... Earned Presidential Award his freshman year at St. Thomas Aquinas.


Jaylen Dunlap, DB
6-1, 175, Glenwood, Ill. / Crete Monee HS
High School Coach: Jerry Verde
Intended Major: Sport Management
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Lori Kay Paden - Undergraduate Advisor (Recreation, Sport and Tourism), College of Applied Health Sciences

High School: Grabbed 10 interceptions during his varsity career ... Earned first-team all-area and first-team all-conference honors as a senior after helping to lead Crete-Monee to Class 6A state championship with 14-0 record in 2012 ... Earned three letters in football ... Academic honor roll as a senior.
Personal: Born Aug. 28, 1995...Parents are Steven and Dena Dunlap ... Brother, Steven Jr., played football in college at Bowling Green from 2008-11 and is currently director of athletics at Catalyst Maria High School in Chicago ... Uncle, Keith Otis, played football for Northern Illinois from 2007-11 ... Grew up as a big fan of former Illini quarterback Juice Williams ... Favorite athlete is all-time great Deion Sanders because "he was a game-changer and the best to player the cornerback position."


Bryce Douglas, DL
6-2, 330, Plainfield, Ill. / Plainfield HS
High School Coach: John Jackson
Intended Major: Communication
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jermaine Martinez - Graduate Teaching Assistant, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked the No. 17 player in the state of Illinois by Scout ... As a senior, had 58 tackles, 10 quarterback sacks, 22 tackles for loss, one interception and one forced fumble ... Two-time Southwest Prairie Conference Defensive Player of the Year ... Earned all-state honors from the Champaign News-Gazette, American Family Insurance All-State Team, Illinois High School Football Coaches Association Class 7A and Chicago Tribune.
Personal: Born Aug. 17, 1995...Parents are Bruce and Madge Douglas ... Father, Bruce, is one of the all-time great Fighting Illini basketball players in school history, with his honored jersey hung at the Assembly Hall and was Big Ten co-MVP in 1984 before playing in the NBA ... Besides his father, favorite athlete is Kobe Bryant ... Interested in broadcasting career after football career is over ... Father was most influential person in his athletic career ... Also an excellent basketball and baseball player ... Biggest thrill in sports is "winning and competing while helping one another push through obstacles and overcome them."


Tyler White, TE
6-5, 245, Kalamazoo, Mich. / Plainwell HS
High School Coach: Darren Conklin
Intended Major: Business or Engineering
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Anthony Fontana - Associate Director, Admissions and Enrichment Academy, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by Scout and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 21 player in Michigan by Scout ... Ranked as the No. 53 tight end in the nation by 247 Sports and the No. 65 tight end in the nation by Scout ... As a senior tight end, had 19 catches for 263 yards and two touchdowns, along with 11 carries for 37 yards ... As a junior, had 36 carries for 287 yards and four touchdowns ... Earned All-Wolverine Conference honors as a senior ... Kalamazoo Gazette All-Area pick and All-Michigan Dream Team selection as a senior ... Named to the All-West Michigan team following his senior season ... Named to the "D Zone" All-Michigan offensive team as one of the top 30 players in the state.
Personal: Born Jan. 12, 1995... Parents are Brian and Ronda White ... Participates in the North Park Reformed Church youth group ... Father was most influential in his athletic career because "he always told me I was going to be great even when others didn't." ... Named to the National Honor Society while in high school and will graduate in the top 20 of his class.


Dawuane Smoot, DL
6-3, 230, Groveport, Ohio / Madison HS
High School Coach: Tim Brown
Intended Major: Business
Illinois Academic Recruiting Assistant: Jewell White - Assistant Dean, Admissions and Recruiting, College of Business

High School: Three-star recruit by Rivals, ESPN and 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 68 defensive end in the nation by 247 Sports ... Ranked as the No. 54 player in Ohio by Rivals ... As a senior, had 91 tackles, 14 sacks, five forced fumbles and one fumble recovery ... As a junior, had 11, 3 tackles, 10 sacks and four PBUs ... As a sophomore, had 56 tackles and six sacks ... Ohio Capital Conference first-team selection as a senior after earning special mention all-conference as a junior ... Was the defensive MVP at Madison as a junior and senior ... All-Metro second-team selection as a senior in 2012 ... Earned three letters in football and three in track during his high school career ... In track, competed at nationals in the shot put, discus and 400 hurdles.
Personal: Born March 2, 1995... Goes by "D.J." ... Parents are Darrell Sr., and Jamecca Smoot ... Favorite athlete is NFL great Julius Peppers because of his style of play ... Was named to his high school academic honor roll as a senior ... Says his father most influenced his athletic career because "he pushed me to be the best."

When "Playing to Your Opponent" Comes in Handy
A huge win for Illinois Saturday, in more ways than one.  Not only did they take down the #8 in the country, they did it in dominating fashion.  Illinois outrebounded a good rebounding team, limited the shooting of a good-shooting team, and ran a ranked Buckeye squad out of Assembly Hall with a loss for the second year in a row.  This after they lost 68-61 to Purdue just days earlier.
The Illini -- and Buckeyes, for that matter -- both proved that in the Big Ten, you can lose to anyone, and you can beat anyone.
This week on the blog, following that Illinois loss to Purdue, I talked about "playing to their opponent" (see below), looking at how the Illini have fared against teams in different categories of the RPI.  Ohio State is now the 4th RPI Top-50 team Illinois has played this year -- they have a 3-1 record against those teams, which is the most important stat, especially when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, but again, it appears there's no real rhyme or reason why the Illini have beaten RPI #6 & #10, and lost to RPI # 139. 
Here are those same stat splits updated with Saturday's numbers:

                          vs. RPI 1-100    vs. RPI 101-150    vs. RPI 151+
Scoring Margin
        +9.5                     +6.3                        +12.1
FG %                       44.2%                  45.8%                      43.6%
3pt FG %                 33.6%                  38.8%                      36.7%    

As you can see, the Illini are beating the top-tier opponents by a greater margin than the likes of Georgia Tech and Purdue.  They've shot more efficiently against Ohio State, Missouri, Gonzaga, and Butler than they have against Colgate, St. Francis, Norfolk State, Eastern Kentucky, and all of their other RPI 150+ opponents.
It's a hard phenomenon to explain, but as we've learned so far this season, it can be very exciting... or very frustrating.
Perhaps more important on Saturday, we learned that this Illinois team can be handed a little frustration, and channel that into some excitement.  Good thing 16,000+ showed up to see it.


Do the Illini Have a "Playing Down/Up to Their Opponent" Problem?

The Big Ten season got off to a l, ess-than-, spectacular start for the Illini Wednesday night, falling 68-61 to Purdue.  The Boilermakers came into the game with a 6-6 overall record, with losses to the likes of Eastern Michigan, and Bucknell, the latter on their home court.  Purdue, according to the RPI rankings -- which I'll talk about a lot here -- is merely the 6th best team Illinois has faced, with a ranking of 139.  Sure, it's tough to win on the road in the Big Ten, but for a team ranked #11/#14 (depending on which ranking you like), this kind of game shouldn't be a problem, even away from home.

I, and many others, were left perplexed after the game.  How is this the same team that cruised to a Maui Invite win, beating Butler (10th in RPI) in the championship?  What happened to the crew that went west and won convincingly against Gonzaga (6th in RPI)?  Of course, they needed an overtime buzzer beater to overtake Hawaii (RPI 246), and barely held off Gardner-Webb (RPI 208) by a point.

Like I said, perplexed.

Following Wednesday night's loss, one in which the Illini went cold again, shooting 35% from the field, a Twitter follower of mine reminded me that somehow "we will go off on OSU Saturday."  He just might be right. The Illini appear to have a "playing to their competition" problem. 

I decided to see how that plays out in the numbers.  Looking at some pretty basic statistics, I separated their opponents by RPI rank.  Illinois has played three top-100 teams, three ranked from 101-150, and eight with RPIs higher than 150.  Apologies to Chaminade, who doesn't make the list because they're Division II:

                            vs. RPI 1-100     vs. RPI 101-150     vs. RPI 151+
Scoring Margin
          +6.3                      +6.3                     +12.1
FG %                         42.9%                   45.8%                   43.6%
3pt FG %                   34.9%                   38.8%                   36.7%    

It's a mixed bag there.  On average, the Illini aren't beating RPI 101-150 teams by any more points than RPI top 100 teams, but they are shooting better.  What's most concerning is the fact that they're shooting averages take a dip the worse the teams get from there, less efficient from the field against teams like W. Carolina (RPI 275) and Auburn (RPI 238), than against the likes of Georgia Tech (RPI 113).

A lot of that has to do with matchups.  Their last 3 opponents -- Missouri, Auburn, and Purdue -- were each excellent rebounding teams - a glaring weakness of the '1, 2-'13 Illini.  In addition, Purdue is 2nd in the Big Ten at defending the 3 point shot, and contained what's really the only major strength of this Illinois team.

Looking at the numbers even a little deeper, I'm reminded that sports fans' memories are short.  This is, after all, a team that opened the season winning by the following margins in five of their first six games: 20, 25, 30, 23, and 17.  I don't know about you, but I no longer feel like this is a team that can put a string like that together, even against the teams they did it against in the first place.  The Illini came out of the gates hot, and what we may be witnessing is simple regression.  The win against then-No.10 Gonzaga was viewed as the springboard for Illinois' recent national acclaim, but in the five games since, that glow has worn off.

                             First 9 games            Last 5
Opp. Avg. RPI
              164                     150
Points Per Game         78.8                     69
Scoring Margin            +14                    +1.8
FG %                           45.7%                 40.7%
3pt FG %                    40.9%                 27.5%

The thing that surprised me most in putting this table together, is that the (overall) quality of the opponents isn't much different.  Sure, the opponents are marginally better, but the shooting percentages are significantly worse.  Looking at three-pointers, the drop from 40.9% to 27.5% accounts for a loss of 14 three pointers over the last -- or 42 points -- some of which have been replaced by two-point FGs, but more of them replaced with zeros.  As hot as Illinois was early this year, they're going cold at just the wrong time.

Their next two:  Saturday vs. #8 Ohio State and Wednesday vs. #9 Minnesota (to go with games against #2 Michigan and #18 MSU before the end of the month), a stretch where "playing to their opponent" might come in handy.

We still have to keep in mind that the Illini are 13-2.  It isn't time to abandon ship, and finding even a portion of that shooting stroke again will make them far more competitive in those games.  They may not be as good as the early season suggests, but they're certainly not as bad as the last few weeks have shown.  It would do them well to find a middle ground, and with that some consistency.  As hard as it is to win on the road in the Big Ten, they'll need to in order to be a topic of conversion in mid-March.

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