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Archive for May, 2011

Whether we like it or not, it’s the Heat’s time to shine

Anger is the chosen emotion for most Bulls’ fans today after a 101-93 Game 4 overtime loss to the Miami Heat.

Anger pointed toward Tom Thibodeau for calling two consecutive isolation sets for Derrick Rose against the six-inch taller, freak-of-an-athlete LeBron James at the end of regulation. It’s pointed toward Rose himself for shooting 8-for-27, missing a possible game-winning free throw in the final minutes and his costly turnovers in the overtime period.

Toward Carlos Boozer for his matador help defense. Toward the referees for the Heat’s 38-to-22 free-throw attempt advantage.

I, on the other hand, have picked sorrow as my preferred way of coping with a 3-1 deficit to star-studded Miami because the Heat are just better.

The Bulls were supposed to be the giant slayers, the white knight, the rebel alliance that would overthrow the evil empire. I thought Rose and company had it in them. They don’t – not yet at least.

The Bulls lost what made them great in the regular season: energy, confidence and the naivety that they had nothing to lose. After the Bulls’ Game 1 runaway rout of the Heatles, it appears the pressure of playing for the NBA Finals has weighed on the youth-led Bulls, especially Rose, the 22-year-old regular season MVP.

Rose hasn’t been himself this series, shooting 36 percent from the field, 10 percent below his season average. He also has just 25 assists in four games, almost four less per game than his average during the first two rounds of the playoffs. Of course, Miami’s superior length and athleticism has a lot to do with that.

But maybe we asked too much of the third-year point guard to carry the Bulls to a place the franchise hadn’t been since No. 23 retired for the second time 13 years ago.

For perspective, look at Jordan, who needed seven seasons before making his first Finals appearance. Need more? Just look at the guy guarding Rose during the final six minutes of last night’s game.

James is in his eighth NBA season. He arguably has been the best player in the NBA for six of those years and would’ve won his third straight MVP if not for Rose. Yet, he’s been to the Finals just once in his first seven seasons.

But it wasn’t his time then. The Boston Celtics, Orlando Magic and San Antonio Spurs made sure of it. His time is now. And it took The Decision – deciding to team up with fellow free agents Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh during the summer – and all the uproar surrounding it to finally emerge as a Finals favorite.

Based on declines from Boston and Orlando, it looks like Miami will stay there for a while too.

Rose already has a better supporting cast than James ever had in Cleveland. James likely would win a title if he and Rose switched teams this season. But James also has the memory and experience of past playoff failures.

So don’t doubt Rose for too long. This experience will make the humble superstar better. He repeatedly will watch this film of this series (the Bulls can still advance to the Finals with three straight wins, though only eight teams have comeback from a 3-1 deficit) and learn to trust his teammates more and to avoid falling in love with his average jumpshot. He’ll get back in the gym and improve that jumper, especially his below average three-point percentage.

But he’s not quite there yet. And that means the Bulls can’t beat James and the gang.

That makes me sad – for today.

Categories: Bulls

Keeping with tradition: another early Illini homecoming kickoff

CHAMPAIGN – Considered the first university to celebrate homecoming back in 1910, Illinois sets aside one weekend every October.to celebrate its history. The Illini seem to have added tradition in recent years: early homecoming kickoffs.

Keeping with the tradition, the Oct. 1 homecoming game against Northwestern will kickoff at 11 a.m. It will mark the sixth consecutive Illinois homecoming game to kickoff before noon. The last time Illinois hosted a homecoming kickoff after noon was in 2005, when Penn State crushed the Illini 63-10 after a 6 p.m. kickoff.

Fans – especially college students – would rather set the alarm for a later wake-up call, leaving more time for pregame festivities and tailgating.

Illinois surely would like the game to be held later for its fans but is at the will of the television networks and their deep pockets. Either ABC, ESPN, ESPN2 or the Big Ten Network will broadcast the game against Northwestern.

The Illini also announced the game time for the Oct. 22 game at Purdue, which will kick off at 11 a.m. as well. Three of the 12 game times now have been announced on the Illini football schedule. The Sept. 17 home game against Arizona State will kickoff at 6 p.m., the Illini’s lone primetime game.

Categories: Illini, Illinois football

Tuesday bits: Big Ten jilts Illini baseball?, APR released

Illinois baseball coach Dan Hartleb had a rough start to the spring as the Illini lost 21 of its first 32 games.

But Hartleb hasn’t had much to complain about during the last few weeks: his team won 11 of its last 14 games including its last five to clinch a share of the Big Ten championship, Hartleb’s first title in five seasons as head coach.

He voiced no quips about it during a Monday interview on the “Tay and J Show,” but Hartleb apparently was not pleased that the Big Ten did not have a trophy waiting on site during Sunday’s home game against Indiana in the instance that the Illini would clinch a share of the conference crown. After Michigan State lost to Northwestern and the Illini defeated Indiana on a Matt Dittman walk-off homerum to claim its first piece of a title since 2005, the players celebrated with a pileup at home plate.

But there was no trophy or championship apparel awaiting Illinois, and Hartleb told The News-Gazette’s Jim Rossow that he wasn’t pleased.

“It doesn’t hurt my feelings but it bothers me from the standpoint that our players worked extremely hard. It’s a lifetime memory,” Illinois coach Dan Hartleb said. “Everyone should be treated the same. If you have five teams who win it, then you should have five trophies at those schools. Ship them in a box and have them on site and tell the schools to open them only if you win. Do something.”

Big Ten assistant commissioner Scott Chipman responded to Hartleb’s comments, telling The News-Gazette that the conference does not supply a trophy or apparel – such as hats or T-shirts – “unless a team can secure the title with a win. If a team is depending on another team to lose to clinch the title, then we hold off on shipping anything to the schools.”

I understand Hartleb’s complaints. He wants all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the title so his players receive their fair due for a tremendous accomplishment. But is the lack of a present trophy really worth a fuss?

Trophies sit on the mantle or behind a glass case to remind us of achievements, it’s not the trophies themselves that we remember. I’m willing to bet Dee Brown and Deron Williams remember Arizona and Louisville more than receiving the NCAA Regional Trophy or watching the Final Four banner rise at the Assembly Hall.

I’m sure the Illini baseball players will remember the dramatics of the title-clinching series against Indiana – Dittman’s Game 3 walk-off, a late Game 2 comeback, Casey McMurray’s Game 1 walk-off homerun and the ensuing pileup at home plate – more than the could’ve-been memory of hoisting a Big Ten trophy and posing for pictures.

The Illini players don’t seem to bothered. As senior pitcher Lee Zurresen (@illinipitch18) tweeted me on Tuesday, the Illini players stepped in for the Big Ten and produced their own championship shirts – albeit with just a black Sharpie marker and a white T from their own dressers.

APR released: The NCAA released the 2009-10 Academic Progress Rates. You can view the Illinois report here.

The Illini women’s golf and women’s gymnastics have a perfect multiyear APR of 1000. The men’s and women’s tennis, men’s gymnastics, men’s cross country and men’s golf teams also finsihed with perfect 1000 APR scores in 09-10. The men’s basketball team’s APR is 964 (in the 60th-70th percentile), while the football multiyear APR is at 949 (50-60th percentile).

Categories: Illini, Illini baseball

Deep UI roots on Illini AD selection committee

Illinois released the 10 names empowered to find a replacement for retiring athletic director Ron Guenther on Thursday, and a common thread ties all of the selection committee members: experience at Illinois.

Guenther said Monday that he declined a short-term extension at Illinois partly because of a fear that those without an Illinois background – be it a new chancellor and/or independent search firm – would ultimately decide his successor.

But his retirement seems to have prevented that possible outcome as chairman Larry DeBrock, dean of the College of Business and Illinois faculty member since 1979, will be surrounded by others with deep roots on the Champaign-Urbana campus.

Two coaches will serve on the committee: swimming and diving coach Sue Novitzky and wrestling coach Jim Heffernan. Novitzky has served 17 years at Illinois, starting as a volunteer assistant in 1994 before Guenther promoted her to assistant coach in 1997 and ultimately head coach in 2000. Heffernan has spent 18 years in the UI wrestling program, 17 years as an assistant coach under Mark Johnson before taking over as head coach this past season.

Steven Greene is in his 20th year at the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics, serving as the director of development. He has played a big role in fund-raising and cultivating major donations for the athletic department. He played fullback for the Illini football team from 1972-75. Two associate athletic directors, Vincent Ille and Susan Young, also will serve on the AD search committee.

Other faculty members on the committee include Cleo D’Arcy, emeritus professor of crop sciences; Chris Span, associate professor of educational policies; and Matt Wheeler, professor of animal sciences. Span received a bachelor’s degree from Illinois in 1995, a master’s in educational policy studies in 1998 and a Ph.D. in educational policy studies in 2001. Wheeler is a former chairman of the Illinois athletic board.

Bob Falato, an alumni, has served on the athletic board and the University of Illinois Alumni Association.

Guenther, whose 19 years at the head of the UI athletic department make him the longest serving AD in the Big Ten, said Monday that he would serve as a “resource” to those charged with finding his replacement but that he would not have input on the final decision.

The committee plans to have a replacement in place by the time Guenther’s current contract expires on June 30. If the process drags past that date, a temporary AD likely would be appointed.

No matter when the replacement is announced, it’s clear that a committee with deep institutional knowledge and experience will be choosing the candidate.

Illini to play Maryland in Big Ten/ACC Challenge

History doesn’t favor Illinois’ matchup with Maryland at College Park, Md., in the 2011 Big Ten ACC Challenge. The Illini are 3-5 all-time against the Terrapins, including back-to-back losses in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge in 2006 and 2007, and 0-2 in games in College Park.

Though the Illini broke a three-game losing streak in the series with an 80-76 win over the Terps at the 2K Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden last year, Illinois has never won back-to-back games against Maryland.

The Terps missed the NCAA Tournament last year, the fourth time in seven years, finishing with a 19-14 record. Maryland will be headed by a new coach for the first time since 1989 as former Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon takes over for Gary Williams, who retired after 22 years at the helm for Maryland.

The Terps’ roster took a hit when leading scorer and rebounder Jordan Williams, a 6-foot-10, 260-pound power forward, elected to stay in the NBA Draft after two seasons at Maryland. The Terps return just two of their six leading scorers: guard Terrell Stoglin (11.5 points) and Sean Mosley (8.1).

But Illinois is in a similar position with its top three scorers lost to graduation and its sixth-leading scorer, Jereme Richmond, remaining in the NBA Draft.

Here’s a look at the rest of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Matchups, all of which will be aired on the ESPN family of networks:

Tuesday, November 29
Miami at Purdue
Northwestern at Georgia Tech
Illinois at Maryland
Michigan at Virginia
Clemson at Iowa
Duke at Ohio State

Wednesday, November 30
Indiana at NC State
Penn State at Boston College
Florida State at Michigan State
Virginia Tech at Minnesota
Wake Forest at Nebraska
Wisconsin at North Carolina

Ron Guenther’s retirment in his own words

Ron Guenther announced Monday morning that he will retire as the head of the Illinois athletic department after 19 years. Guenther, the longest-tenured athletic director in the Big Ten, will step down on June 30, the day his current contract expires.

Guenther’s legacy is a mixed bag. Under his direction, Illinois made drastic improvements to its facilities, including the $121 million Memorial Stadium Renaissance project, the Irwin Indoor Football Facility, the Ubben Basketball Practice Facility, Illinois Field, the UI Outdoor Track and Field and Soccer Stadium, the Atkins Tennis Center, the Khan Outdoor Tennis Complex, the Demirjian Golf Facility, the Eichelberger Softball Field and the Irwin Football Complex. Guenther’s program has finished in the black for 17 straight seasons, has avoided NCAA investigators and performed well academically.

But an 85-125-2 football record during his tenure has lost him supporters as well as a failure to capitalize on a 2005 Final Four run in basketball. His contract extensions for football coach Ron Zook and women’s basketball coach Jolette Law also drew the ire of fans.

Guenther, who mostly shied from public appearances during his tenure, decided to step away from that spotlight.

He spoke with the media Monday afternoon on a teleconference.

Following is a truncated transcript of that discussion.

On making the decision …

“I think the answer is really in my gut. I thought this would be the time to make the change. We had a lot of new things happening. We got a new board of trustees, a new president and soon to have a chancellor, I felt that it was time to move on to different things.

“It’s actually bittersweet. I think there was a point where emotionally I was very convinced I was ready, but even this morning as I was coming up the steps, it’s five after six and I enjoy that time in the office by myself. I’m thinking, ‘I am going to do something else I just don’t know what it’s going to be.’ The age wasn’t the factor. It was really the timing and maybe a little bit a side of you that says, you know, ‘It’s time for somebody else to drive this.’ It’s been an emotional deal for me. I’d be kidding anybody to say anything different.

“I feel badly that Dr. (President Michael) Hogan’s only been with us for a year but he does have a lot on his plate. This decision here is really a campus decision and it would’ve been one less thing to be thinking about if I would have extended but his reaction was always what was best for me. I think even though he expressed the opinion (for me) to stay and continue, I think this is all going to work out.”

On whether or not he’ll remain involved in Assembly Hall renovation project …

“We’ve got an option that we can look at that. My background has been in development prior to getting directorship. I think there’s an option that we’re going to be looking at over the summer. Certainly, I can assure everybody the Assembly Hall project is finally on track.”

On his role in the search for his successor …

“We’ve got some internal candidates. We’ve got some highly qualified people. I’m obviously there as a resource if the committee wants to ask me some questions, but I’m not going to take the lead in naming names or providing names as my possible successor.”

On where he’s leaving the football program …

“I think that from a facilities standpoint … everything’s in place here for football to have success. …I feel really good about where we’re leaving football. It still comes down to winning games, but from the schedule to the facilities to the salary to the budget, they have everything they need there to have success.”

Reactions from Bruce Weber and Ron Zook on his retirement …

“I’m disappointed. They’re disappointed. But these are discussions I’ve had with both coaches during various times of their seasons, after the season. We talked about the possibility of me being gone. I think they feel good for me personally, but I think I will miss the relationship as much as they’ll miss the relationship.”

On Illini fans’ view of him …

“The fanbase doesn’t see all of that, and I get that. I get what they get. I think that we’ve made changes when we’ve needed to make changes for the right reasons. Sometimes it’s an injury, sometimes it’s an academic casualty, sometimes it’s an official’s call. That’s how close it is. It’s hard to win basketball games and football games at the level the fanbase wants day-in and day-out. The part that some of the fanbase doesn’t understand is our kids are coming here to get an education as well. We’ve obviously professionalized collegiate sports at the highest level but one of the things that needs to be noted is the guys I’ve supported have had very high standards of behavior and they’ve had really high standards of what they expect in the classroom. Then the third piece of that is we set a very high standard for winning and losing as well. I think they know that I get it. I know when coaches don’t have enough budget to get something done.”

For more reaction to Ron Guenther’s retirement, listen to the “Tay and J Show” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on 93.5, 95.3 ConnectFM and streaming online at http://www.myconnectfm.com.

No coincidence that Ibby contrasts recent Illini big men

Listening to Bruce Weber’s descriptions of latest signee Ibrahima Djimde – “He likes to play physical. He likes to bang,” the Illinois coach said – it didn’t take long to realize why the Illini rolled the dice in offering the late-blooming, 6-foot-9, 250-pound power forward from Mali, Africa.

Djimde, his name is pronounced EE-bruh-hee-muh JIM-day but goes by the nickname “Ibby,” is a true, throwback “4.” He’s the antithesis of the skilled but skinny Illini post men that have – or at least attempted – to fill the paint the past four years.

That’s no accident.

“We believe physicality, strength, size, if we could find anybody with any of those attributes it would be a positive for us,” Weber said.

After choosing the Illini over Old Dominion, Djimde became the seventh member of the Illini’s Class of 2011, the final building block to Extreme Makeover: Illini Basketball Edition.

Djimde isn’t the foundation. Far from it. He lacks the offensive skill set for that level of expectations.

The team’s value in 2011 will be determined mostly by returners D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul, Meyers Leonard and Crandall Head and Tyler Griffey with incoming recruits Sam Maniscalco, a senior transfer; Mycheal Henry and Tracy Abrams expected to contribute early.

But Djimde, who immigrated to the U.S. two years ago and attended prestigious Huntington (W.V) Prep last year, is an ingredient of the mortar that fill the cracks.

From Weber’s account, Djimde accepts that role as well. A few years from now, that presumably will complement point guard Tracy Abrams, primary scorers Henry and Head and Nnanna Egwu and Mike Shaw, more face-up scorers in the post.

“To me, it’s just so pleasant that he wants to rebound, he wants to guard, he wants to battle in the post and he doesn’t have any visions of grandeur of shooting threes on the perimeter,” Weber said. “He knows what he is and he feels good about that.”

The Illini could have rolled over its open scholarship to next year. But with a weak in-state 2012 class with little to no big men worthy of a Big Ten scholarship, Weber went with the burly big man he met just about a month ago.

In the end, Djimde could be a 2012 prospect if he redshirts a season as he acclimates to the 40,000-student Midwest campus and the rigors of Big Ten basketball.

Sure, it’s a gamble for the Illini staff. He’s not the star all fans yearn for out of the next recruit.

But he fits the profile of what Illinois needs by not fitting the profile of recent Illini post men.

“Once we saw what he’s about – his future, his body, his strength, his maturity – it just made sense to give it a go,” Weber said.

Categories: Illinois basketball