Live from Assembly Hall…

It’s Christmas Eve for Illini basketball fans. Three shiny new recruits for the Class of 2009. A new season already underway (Illinois held its first practice at 7 p.m. today). Thousands of people in pink T-shirts filling up Assembly Hall for “Illini Madness,” mainly of whom are plainly giddy over the recent oral commitments by Warren guard Brandon Paul, Peoria Central guard D.J. Richardson and Sterling wing Joseph Bertrand.

There’ll be a dunk contest, 3-point contest and a brief scrimmage here in a little while. But to pass the time, let’s empty the notebook from today’s Media Day festivities.

OBSERVATIONS:
While messing around after the player interviews, freshman forward Mike Davis nearly equalled Julius Erving’s trademark dunk. With a running start from half-court, Davis took off with his heel an inch past the free-throw line and all but threw down a dunk. It banged off the rim, but I’m guessing he had the distance to make it happen.

Freshman guard Demetri McCamey tossed a ball to himself and threw down a 360-degree dunk with ease. Freshman center Mike Tisdale tried several “two-ball” dunks in preparation for tonight’s contest.

Tisdale, by the way, can touch a higher point on the backboard than any of his teammates. He reached 12 feet off the floor during his official test with strength and conditioning czar Jimmy Price. Since his 7-foot-2 wingspan enables him to touch 110″ standing, that means Tisdale boasts a 34-inch vertical leap. Not bad for a 7-foot-1 kid.

Senior forward Brian Randle (who says he’s as healthy as he’s been in a long time) touched a point 11-foot-9 off the floor.

Junior shooting guard Steve Holdren owns a 37-inch vertical leap. Not too shabby considering he doesn’t have any cartilage in either knee. Due to one surgery during high school and one surgery while at South Dakota State, Holdren says both of his knees are bone-on-bone.

Some Bruce quips from Friday (paraphrased unless shown otherwise):
If Illinois had to play today, Trent Meacham would start at shooting guard. But he also said the job could/should be filled by committee. Holdren, Chester Frazier and Calvin Brock also could be asked to play there.
My guess? Frazier and freshman Demetri McCamey will wind up starting at the guards, with McCamey doing most of the handling to give Chester a break from playing defense on other teams’ point guards.

“Rodney Alexander has the body, has the athleticism. He has to figure how hard you have to play at this level. He’s probably as talented as anyone on the team, he can do some things nobody else can.”
Alexander and Randle have similar vertical leaps, but Alexander has a little stronger body. Interestingly, Alexander apparently can shoot 3s with the best of them. According to Weber, when Alexander gets his feet set he’s right there with Meacham and Holdren as the team’s best shooters. Now he needs to learn to come off a screen and put it up.

Other random observations:
Tisdale’s on a 6,000 calories per day diet, which has him up to 225 pounds.
Shaun Pruitt’s up to 252 pounds, but his body-fat percentage has dropped.
McCamey has dropped 12 pounds.
Carlwell has dropped at least 10 pounds, but apparently needs to shed at least 10 more.
Chester Frazier won the team’s mile run at 5:09. Perhaps more amazingly, Frazier wasn’t wearing any braces or wraps or other medical gear.

One last note: Here’s this year’s winning entry for Most Understated Media-Guide Sentence:
As part of Jeff Jordan’s “Personal” file, it reads, simply …”Father’s basketball accomplishments are far too great to even attempt listing.”
All credit goes to Derrick Burson in Illinois’ Media Relations Dept.

That’s it for now. ‘Bout time for the pre-Madness entertainment. Check Saturday’s Daily Herald for more info on the recruits, quotes from class of 2010 stud Jemere Richmond and, of course, Illinois FB coverage.

LW

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Quick look at Northern Illinois hoops

Ricardo Patton’s first Huskies squad starts official practice at 8 a.m. Saturday morning. It figures to be a wild 27 days of preparation leading up to NIU’s season opener Nov. 9 at Northern Iowa.

After all, he needs to sort out the 17 healthy and eligible guys on the roster — most of whom have never played a minute of Division I basketball.

“I think I have an idea of what guys’ skill levels are,” Patton said Wednesday. “But it’s a matter now of putting them through game-like situations, pressure-like situations. We’re looking in our practices every day to create game-type pressure.”

Here’s how NIU’s roster breaks down by class:
SENIORS:
G Ryan Paradise          10.1 ppg in 2006-07
G/F Zach Pancratz        8.9 ppg (redshirting after left shoulder surgery)
F Shaun Logan               7.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg
G/F Ben Rand               4.9 ppg
F Egan Grafel                1.8 ppg
F Michael Hart             Walk-on averaged 7.7 ppg at Div. III Carthage in ’05-06

JUNIORS:
F Sean Smith                13.0 ppg, 6.8 rpg at Vincennes JC in ’06-07
G Jarvis Nichols           Redshirt last year (dropped to walk-on this year)

SOPHOMORES:
G Cody Yelder              9.8 ppg, 1.9 apg
F Bristan Kelley           2.9 ppg, 2.0 rpg
F Najul Ervin               4.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg at Kankakee CC in ’06-07
C Sean Kowal               Colorado transfer (0.7 ppg, 1.4 rpg) must sit out this year
G Richard Oruche       0.8 ppg (walk-on)

FRESHMEN:
G Jake Anderson        Non-qualifier last year; should be big contributor
G Jeremy Landers     Strong scorer and on-ball defender
F Darrius Gaters        Redshirted last year
G Michael Patton       Legit point-guard candidate (walk-on)
C Michael Fakuade    Von Steuben walk-on played in Public League all-star game
F Lee Fisher               Thornridge walk-on averaged 13.4 ppg and 12.1 rpg

2008 RECRUITS:
G Mike Dinunno         Von Steuben senior replaces Paradise’s shooting
F Tyler Storm            Geneseo product a 3-star prospect per Rivals

2009 RECRUITS
F Steven Walker        Originally at Thornwood, now at Simeon

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Illinois 27, Indiana 14…

BLOOMINGTON, IND. — For the last five seasons, Illinois made more than enough marks in the school history books. The bad side of the books.
But with Saturday’s win at Indiana, the Illini are starting to balance those ledgers  and the Ron Zook reclamation project continues to look better and better.

Here’s a sample of what Saturday’s win meant:
1. Illinois won its Big Ten opener for the first time since 1993. Had the Illini lost this one, they would have set the conference record for consecutive openers lost.
2. Together with last week’s win at Syracuse, Illinois won back-to-back weeks on the road for the first time since November 1999 (at Iowa and Ohio State).
3. Illinois’ 7 sacks were the team’s highest total in the 2000s. Backup DE Will Davis’ 4 sacks is one of the top three performances in school history — at least since they started tracking sacks. Only Simeon Rice, who had 5 against Washington State in 1994, posted more.
4. An Illinois defense hadn’t given up so few points in a Big Ten game since a 45-14 win over Indiana in 2002.
5. Illinois hasn’t won three games in a row since 2001, when the Kurt Kittner-led Big Ten champs won their last seven regular-season games.
6. Rashard Mendenhall’s 214-yard effort (sixth-best in school history) gave him the school’s first back-to-back-to-back 100-yard games since Rocky Harvey in 1999-2000. This might not sound like a huge deal, but Illinois has tracked 100-yard rushing games since 1945. Only two running backs (J.C. Caroline and school-record holder Robert Holcombe) have put together four consecutive 100-yard games.
7. Have you checked out Illinois’ running totals since Juice Williams became the starter? He has made 13 starts and the Illini have rushed for 200-plus yards in NINE of those. Illinois has put up 943 yards and 8 TDs on the ground in the last three weeks.

Mentioning Illinois’ rushing prowess — and giving Juice a healthy share of the credit — provides a jumping-off point to this week’s discussion about the passing game. Clearly, it’s nowhere near where it needs to be in order to be a Big Ten challenger. A conference opponent (Penn State?) is going to force the Illini to throw successfully in order to win.

It’s getting to the point where a good, solid completion — such as Juice’s pair of slant passes to Arrelious Benn at the close of the first half — are viewed as a pleasant surprise instead of a pass that the majority of college QBs would make with ease.

Head coach Ron Zook suggested Juice was victimized by a few early drops, while offensive coordinator Mike Locksley suggested Juice made some throws he never should have tried.

Anyway, let’s break down Juice’s day. All the attempts, since we’ve got a little time:
No. 1: On the game’s second play from scrimmage, Benn whips all-Big Ten corner Tracy Porter on a deep post. But Benn has to decelerate to wait for Juice’s underthrown lob and Porter picks it off. Should’ve been 6 points — or at least a gain deep into Indiana territory.
No. 2: Wide-receiver screen for Kyle Hudson nets 2 yards. Defended well by IU.
No. 3: Kyle Hudson gets open near the IU 10-yard line, but Juice throws it way too high. This one’s on Juice.
No. 4: Joe Morgan runs, if I recall correctly, a medium post on 3rd and 15. Juice’s throw is behind him and low. No chance for a catch, but at least Illinois doesn’t turn it over and Jason Reda boots a FG.
No. 5: Swing pass to Rashard Mendenhall gets 6 yards. Juice showed a fine touch the last two weeks on these passes.
No. 6: On a boot rollout, Juice throws way behind Morgan. His bad.
No. 7: If I recall correctly, this was a slant pass to Morgan that was slightly behind him, but he appeared to catch it and then drop it. The home fans wanted a fumble, but the officials ruled it incomplete. Morgan’s got to catch this, even though an on-target pass would have allowed him to run after the catch.
No. 8: Juice guns a fastball nowhere near Brian Gamble. Maybe he meant to throw it away deep in IU territory in order to preserve Reda’s 38-yard field goal, but I’m saying he just misfired.
TOTALS: 2 for 8, 8 yards, 1 INT.
SECOND QUARTER
No. 9: A 10-yard screen pass to Troy Pollard. Once again, a nice pass.
No. 10: A 4-yard bubble screen left to Rejus Benn. Keeps the chains moving for…
No. 11: Sitting on IU’s 2-yard line, Illinois brings in two tight ends and two fullbacks, gives a full-house look and Juice runs a perfect rollout and flips to uncovered TE Michael Hoomanawanui for his first career score. Well-done.
No. 12: With a defender draped on him, Juice somehow throws it away well downfield. Actually, it might have been too good of a throwaway because it could have been caught (or intercepted) because it was on the sideline instead of OB.
No. 13: A bubble screen right to Benn nets 6 yards. Solid.
No. 14: From Illinois’ 47, Juice throws a bomb toward Jacob Willis that lands harmlessly in the end zone. Not open, but not interceptable either. Probably stretched the defense.
No. 15: My notes aren’t good on this pass toward Morgan, which was apparently broken up by cornerback Leslie Majors.
No. 16: Here starts the best drive of Juice’s career. After Indiana’s TD cuts Illinois’ lead to 13-7, the Illini took over on their own 32 with 2:04 left in the half. Juice starts things with a 9-yard bubble screen to Benn.
No. 17: Benn lines up in the right slot, runs a medium slant and Juice finds him in front of the safety. A big league-looking play.
No. 18: Juice rifles a down-and-out to Will Judson for a 7-yard gain as he gets OB.
No. 19: This actually was an option play with Mendenhall, but Juice’s pitch went slightly forward so the statisticians had to call this 3-yard loss a pass. Mendenhall blamed himself for the handful of poor pitches during the game, saying he took a few incorrect arcs when Juice went “flat” with his path.
No. 20: On third-and-6, Benn runs the same route as three plays before for an 18-yard gain.
No. 21: Juice scrambles left. With nobody in front of him, he probably should have tucked and run, but he tried to hit Mendenhall near the 5-yard line, but he was standing OB when he caught it. Oops. But it didn’t matter because…
No. 22: This play made College Football Final shortly before Mendenhall earned a “helmet sticker” from Mark May. Juice throws a screen pass left to Mendenhall, who uses a kickout block from LT Xavier Fulton and a huge block at the 5 from LG Martin O’Donnell to scoot down the sideline for the 15-yard score with 44 seconds left in the half.
TOTALS: 10 for 14, 81 yards, 2 TDs.
THIRD QUARTER:
No. 23: So much for building on the 2-minute drill. Nate Bussey recovers Vontae Davis’ blocked punt at IU’s 25 and Juice immediately goes to the air, but he can’t hook up with Morgan in the end zone. I wrote down “Throwaway?” because I couldn’t figure out the pass’ intent.
No. 24: This, for Juice’s sake, was an example of a young guy trying to make a play. On third-and-7 from IU’s 22, Juice feels pressure, steps up, JUMPS and fires a blah pass to the sideline that Tracy Porter picks off at the 11 and returns 22 yards. Costs Illinois 3 points and momentum.
No. 25: With Illinois pinned in its own end, Locksley decides to keep it on the ground. But on the sixth play of the drive, Juice rolls right, sees a wide-open Gamble about 20 yards down the field and doesn’t come close to connecting. Gamble had to dive just to get a finger on it.
No. 26: Juice showcases his arm with a cross-field rifle to Will Judson on the near sideline for a 9-yard gain. This will be his first and last completion of the second half.
No. 27: Working from IU’s 41, Joe Morgan somehow emerges uncovered from the pack and he’s heading toward the near sideline’s end zone. Juice uncorks a throw that goes off his fingers in a perfect storm of Illini passing issues. Juice made an easy throw hard…but Morgan left his feet to make it harder on his already inconsistent hands. Let’s just say I’m betting Benn or Gamble would have caught it.
No. 28: On third-and-8, Juice throws way too high for Willis.
TOTALS: 1 for 6, 9 yards, 1 INT.
FOURTH QUARTER
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run (for TD).
Run. Run. Run. Punt.
Run. Run. Run. Run. Run (fumble).
Run. Run. Run. Punt.
Kneel. Kneel. Kneel.
Game over.
GRAND TOTAL: If Juice merely converts the throws to open receivers that were his fault (at least in my estimation), he would’ve gone 20 for 28 with an additional 150 yards and 2 TDs.

But, hey, it’s college. And he’s still learning. And the dimension he brings to Illinois’ running game, particularly his option acumen, can’t be ignored. Whether the running production outweighs the production lost in the passing game, only Locksley and Zook can answer that.
Or, maybe the only answer necessary is this: Illinois is on a three-game winning streak and thinking about a bowl game.

Am I being too hard on the lad?

LW

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Anyone care to relive 2004-05?

Since we’re starting to build a little bit of an audience here (and the start of college basketball season is just around the corner), I thought I’d reprint all 39 game stories from Illinois’ 2004-05 season.

Well, to be specific, these are the versions that I sent into the Daily Herald. Usually they ran verbatim, but sometimes they were snipped a little at the end for space reasons. So consider those extra words to be “bonus tracks,” or whatever they put on the end of CDs or DVDs or whatever the kids listen to these days.

We’ll start with a two-fer, then if the feedback’s good we’ll keep going.

First up? The official season preview that ran in the Daily Herald on Nov. 16, 2004. Then we’ll have the game story from the Nov. 19 opener against Delaware State.

SEASON PREVIEW
CHAMPAIGN _ Via team bus, it takes three hours to travel from Assembly Hall to St. Louis’ Edward Jones Dome.
But via daydream, Illinois’ players and coaches can make their trip of a lifetime in an instant.
They can close their eyes, picture the Gateway Arch and hear the strains of “One Shining Moment” as confetti rains down on their midcourt celebration…
While it’s tempting to take the shortcut to the site of this season’s Final Four _ especially with all the aspirations attached to the nation’s sixth-ranked team _ the Illini say they’re determined to take the long road to destiny.
“My goal is to win a national championship,” said junior point guard Deron Williams, the Big Ten’s preseason player of the year. “But that’s a long ways away. If you’re thinking about St. Louis, you’re going to have a hard time even making it to the NCAA Tournament.
“We’ve got Delaware State. That’s our first real game. We’re worried about them. Once that’s over, we’ll worry about Florida A&M. One game at a time.”
Three days from the start of its 100th season, Illinois already finds itself dealing with issues that could have an effect in March _ and they don’t include head coach Bruce Weber’s appendectomy Monday that will limit him for a few days.
When fast-rising sophomore forward Brian Randle broke his left hand last week in a fit of practice pique, the Illini likely lost their most athletic backup for the season.
That leaves Weber with just eight proven players for his rotation _ at least until either sophomore forward Warren Carter or freshman post Shaun Pruitt indicate they can help.
If Pruitt, the West Aurora High School product, can provide aid in the post along with solid seniors Nick Smith and Jack Ingram, then Roger Powell, Jr., can spend some time at the “3.”
“The next couple weeks in practice is really important for (Pruitt),” Weber said. “Just learning the system so we feel confident that he can step in game situations.”
In the meantime the slender 6-foot-9 Carter, who played just 63 minutes last year, will audition for Randle’s backup minutes at small forward. Weber wants Carter to ratchet up his intensity several notches.
“He’s not a freshman anymore,” Weber said. “It’s being in a (defensive) stance. Being ready. Denying passes. Not just standing around. If you’re going to make a move, make a move and be explosive with it.”
Perhaps Carter has found it difficult to burst into the rotation when Illinois’ lineup features five veterans who’ve time and again proven their pyrotechnic wizardry.
It’s possible that each of the Illini starters _ Williams, Powell, Dee Brown, Luther Head and James Augustine _ could merit all-Big Ten honors at season’s end.
Williams, who earned first-team all-Big Ten honors last year, made several preseason All-America teams due to all of his offseason improvement.
But according to Brown, Williams might not have taken the team’s biggest strides since last season’s Sweet 16 loss to Duke.
“It’s a tossup between Deron and Luther,” Brown said. “Deron’s just on a whole ‘nother level and I think Luther’s confidence has risen a lot, too. I think both of them have upped their games to the point where it’s going to be trouble for a lot of people.”
Brown declined to rate himself equal to his running mates, but he showcased new ballhandling moves and renewed confidence in his shot during exhibition play. Brown drilled three straight 3-pointers in a 77-second span during Sunday’s preseason win over Lewis.
The three guards, along with sophomore sharpshooter Rich McBride, leave Illinois with no questions about its backcourt.
That leaves more time for questions about its frontcourt, which didn’t measure up to Duke.
“Our inside presence is a key,” Weber said. “It was definitely a factor in the Duke game. We watched that (in October) and we just didn’t have the presence to stop any post play.”
With that in mind, Powell (116. ppg, 5.0 rpg last year) has added 15 pounds of muscle. Augustine added less than 10 pounds of muscle, but strengthened his game measurably with offseason one-on-one sessions against former Illini Robert Archibald.
Has Illinois done enough heavy lifting to carry their expectations all the way to St. Louis? It’s time to find out.
“There’s a little bit of, I guess, a fear factor that we’re not going to live up to everything,” Weber said. “But I think they’ve worked pretty hard. They’re focused.
“I’ve had some people ask me if we can stay No. 1 or if we can go undefeated,” added Weber, referring to Illinois’ top billing in Lindy’s and Playboy magazines.
“I’ve said it all along, ‘We’re going to lose some games.’ But in the players’ minds, they probably think they can win every game. That’s kids…and that’s good.”
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ILLINOIS 87, Delaware State 67
CHAMPAIGN _ The worst thing about some early-season matchups? They can lead to such absurdities as 6-foot-10 Illinois center James Augustine defending 6-1 opponents well beyond the 3-point arc.
The best thing about such early-season games, at least for the nation’s No. 6 team?
They can serve as such valuable experiences that they’ll be drawn on several times along the journey toward greatness _ whether it be during today’s serious practice or March’s first-round NCAA Tournament game.
Illinois bounced Delaware State 87-67 in Friday’s opener on a record-shooting night at Assembly Hall, but the game stayed competitive long enough that Deron Williams and Dee Brown didn’t leave for good until 2:54 remained.
“If we won by 40 today and we got all layups, it probably wouldn’t do us any good,” said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. “This did us some good.”
The Illini (1-0) left feeling great about their offense. They made 63.6 percent from the field for the game _ matching their effort in last year’s NCAA win against Cincinnati _ and sank 12 of 22 from 3-point range.
Then there was the defense. How about it, Dee Brown?
“Mediocre,” said the Illini junior guard. “It wasn’t good. But that’s the way they played. They made us go to sleep a little bit and they just exploited us by penetrating and kicking.”
The smaller Hornets torched Illinois’ man-to-man defense at a 57.1 percent clip for the night, which included an 11 of 14 beginning that gave the Hornets a 28-23 lead.
Delaware State spread its players beyond the 3-point arc, then picked its best matchup and slashed to the hoop. When Illini defenders helped or tried to sneak into a passing lane for steals, the Hornets found open men for 3-pointers.
Weber pounced on his team after the game about their defense _ and plans to spend today’s 90-minute practice watching the film and fixing the issues.
“It was definitely the first thing I talked about,” Weber said. “We talked about it in practice. It was happening (Thursday) in a drill. They were gambling and stuff. Sometimes with Calvin (Brock) and some of the younger guys, they can gamble and cheat.
“Now, all of a sudden you gamble and cheat and this guy knows how to play _ and he goes by you. We’ve got to be more cut in. I hope it doesn’t take a loss against a great team to wake ’em up.”
“I think you have to give our kids a little credit also,” said Delaware State coach Greg Jackson. “But you can only play on emotion for so long. Then talent takes over.”
Augustine reigned supreme in the lane. He made 7 of 8 shots _ all in the first half _ on his way to 15 points and a game-high 7 rebounds.
Brown added a game-high 17 points on 5 of 6 shooting, while Luther Head contributed 15 points and 5 assists and Williams managed 12 points and 6 assists.
Illinois and Delaware State set the all-time school record for combined field-goal shooting (60.8 percent). The Hornets also set the Assembly Hall record for fewest rebounds (12) by an Illini opponent _ an opponent the Illini might see again.
“Our goal is to get a ‘1’ (or) ‘2’ seed in the Tournament,” Brown said. “You’re going to play a team like this the first round, so it’s a good game for us.”
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NEXT UP: Illinois hosts Florida A&M…

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Jerrance Howard is the man…

Illinois finally announced its poorly held secret on Wednesday: Jerrance Howard replaces Tracy Webster on Bruce Weber’s coaching staff.

For anyone who’s curious why Howard got the job, seeing as how he’s just 27 and hasn’t been anything more than a Director of Basketball Operations to this point, check out this nugget I found in my Daily Herald archives.

This was published on March 19, 2004, as part of the preview package for Illinois’ first-round NCAA win over Murray State. This pretty much describes Howard to a “T.”

Oh, and I just got off the phone with him. Here’s his recruiting plan, which will go into effect as soon as he completes the compliance test: “My first stop WILL be Chicago.”

COLUMBUS, Oh. _ Only effervescent, fun-loving Jerrance Howard could get away with addressing Dick Enberg as “Swifty.”

During Illinois’ walk-through Thursday afternoon at Nationwide Arena, the senior guard broke away from a drill to introduce himself to CBS-TV’s on-air personnel.After shaking Lesley Visser’s hand, Howard turned back toward the court momentarily before noticing Enberg.

“How you doing, Swifty?” Howard said as he extended his hand.

When Enberg opened his right hand to reveal popcorn fragments that made his hand unshakeable, Howard adjusted nicely and tapped his fist on top of Enberg’s left fist.

That’s how Howard’s entire senior year has gone _ making memories and connections that will last a lifetime.

Throughout this year, amplifying on something he did earlier in his career, Howard has carried around a camera to chronicle his fifth and final season.

Not a video camera, like so many other athletes do in this day and age. A regular old camera.

“I’m a big photo guy,” Howard said. “Wherever we go, I’m telling the guys to get in the middle and have a group picture. Just something to show my kids and my little nephews that I was a part of some good teams.”

And played against some good teams.

When Illinois faced North Carolina in December, Howard slipped his camera to a team manager so he could have his picture taken when he and the other Illini captains met the Tar Heels’ captains at midcourt for the pregame briefing with the refs.

“Just any place where I think it will bring up memories,” Howard said.

In hotels. During meals. During postgame locker-room celebrations. Basically, anywhere.

And which Illini are most eager to jump into Howard’s photos? One would assume Dee Brown would lead that list, but Howard asserts otherwise.

“Deron (Williams) and Luther (Head),” Howard said. “Without a doubt.”

“I want to be in there all the time,” Head said. “I want my face in there so he’ll never forget me, because I’ll never forget him.”

Why?

“Because he’s been so special to this program ever since he’s been here,” said Head, who got to Champaign two seasons after Howard. “Even before I came, I was hearing stories about him keeping everybody motivated and reminding guys how important things are.”

That’s the guy with the Illini passion. If he doesn’t get it done, it won’t be from lack of trying. To read what Jerrance had to say Wednesday, check out Thursday’s Daily Herald or www.dailyherald.com

LW 

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Illinois 21, Western Illinois 0…

Illinois’ extended goose-egg shortage has come to an end. Crappy lede, I know, but it’s after 11 p.m. and we’re clearing out of the Memorial Stadium press box.

Illinois’ defense took advantage of a Western Illinois offensive game plan that would make Dubya look liberal (I know, tortured political cliche) and posted the school’s first shutout since Oct. 14, 2000, when Ron Turner’s crew put a 31-0 whupping on Iowa and future Illini QB Jon Beutjer.

Illinois’ 77-game stretch between whitewashings represented the longest shutout drought in school history. The victory ran Illinois’ record to 4-0 against Division I-AA (OK, Football Championship Subdivision) teams since 2003. Over the same stretch, the Illini are just 5-39 against its Division I-A peers.

Juice Williams played all but the final two series and looked haphazard. He admitted afterward that he pressed to make up for last week’s game, when he sat for the final 40 minutes after injuring his left eye. Juice missed open receivers, etc., as he went 12 of 24 for 123 yards, 1 INT and no TDs.

Offensive coordinator Mike Locksley pointed out Juice’s faults, but also pointed out some new-found strengths. I’ll put those quotes in Monday’s Daily Herald.

Like last week, when I broke down the quarterbacks’ incompletions, here’s this week’s  quick Juice-o-Meter:

First quarter:
INC No. 1: Right in Jeff Cumberland’s hands. His drop. He did not have another ball thrown his way.
INC No. 2: Bomb to Joe Morgan in the end zone. Morgan got turned around, but seemed to have enough time to gather himself and the ball. Morgan’s drop.
INC No. 3: Juice throws too high for Kyle Hudson on a cross. Juice’s fault.

Second quarter:
INC No. 4: Juice scrambles and fires a ball that WIU LB Bennett tips. Probably wouldn’t have been a completion anyway. Put it on Juice.
INT No. 1: Juice misreads Rejus Benn’s route, then compounds the mistake by throwing wildly. WIU picks it off in the red zone.
INC No. 5: Juice’s quick slant to Benn gets batted at the line by LB Travis Cherry.
INC No. 6: Two plays after completing a deep slant to Hudson, Juice leads him too far on the same type of pass.

Third quarter:
INC No. 7: The first of four straight INCs as Juice scrambles and correctly throws it away.
INC No. 8: Juice throws it too wide to be caught inbounds. His bad.
INC No. 9: Fullback Russ Weil gets open in the flat, but Juice throws it too short to be caught. His fault.
INC No. 10: Juice scrambles to his left, throws across his body and nearly suffers his second pick. LB Jerome Bennett can’t hang on to the bullet as he tightropes the sideline. Should’ve been thrown away. Juice’s fault.

Fourth quarter:
INC No. 11: Juice scrambles and throws it away.

GRAND TOTALS:
Juice’s fault: 7
Drops: 2 (Cumberland and Morgan)
PBU: 1
Smart throwaways: 2.

That’s it from Memorial Stadium for this week.

LW

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Webster’s gone…now what?

There wasn’t a good time for Illinois assistant coach Tracy Webster to leave for bluegrassier pastures. As the Illini’s point man in Chicago, as well as a guy who made connections from coast-to-coast, he was the closest thing the Orange and Blue had to a star salesman.

But for Webster to leave Illinois for Kentucky on Wednesday ranks with the worst possible timing imaginable. On Sunday, the current “quiet period” ends and coaches can fan out across the country for the next 27 days recruiting players and conducting home visits.

This contact period is hugely important and, while it’s not impossible for a three-man staff to do a solid job from Sept. 9 through Oct. 5, it turns an already grueling stretch into a ridiculously tiring time for the coaches. Bruce Weber has mentioned in years past just how arduous this fall period is — and that’s with a full staff.

The coaches are supposed to conduct individual workouts on campus and remind their current players that they care about them and their on-court and off-court development (an even more important job this year with so many rookies on the roster), yet they’re supposed to seal the deal with undecided seniors and set the foundation with underclassmen. That’s a heckuva combination.

The terrible timing of Webster’s shift — and the school to which he’s shifting — fully explains the terse, one-sentence sendoff that Weber offered in his official statement.

QUOTE:
CHAMPAIGN, ILL.–Illinois men¹s basketball assistant coach Tracy Webster
resigned today after serving on the UI staff for three seasons from 2005-07.

³We appreciate the hard work and contribution Tracy made to our program and
wish him well,² Illini Head Coach Bruce Weber said.
ENDQUOTE

Considering Weber is the same guy who, only a day before, talked for 15 minutes about the recent Canada trip without taking a breath, shows you how this might hurt. Does it ruin Illinois’ chances with Top 30 recruit Darius Miller of Kentucky? While it’s hard to imagine the Illini were the frontrunner, it all but kills their chances to land the top remaining recruit (per the national rankings) on their Class of 2008 wishlist.

But what’s done is done. Now it’s a matter of finding someone who’s better than Tracy Webster at convincing Chicago area players to come to Illinois.

In my mind, that means just one guy: Notre Dame assistant coach Gene Cross. Now, I’ve got to disclose here that I’ve known Gene for 10 years. I covered him when he was with Dave Leitao at DePaul. I did it on a lesser basis when he was at UIC with Jimmy Collins. I’ve kept in touch as he went on to Virginia (with Leitao) and then shifted to the Irish.

I bring up the personal angle for two reasons: 1) To head off any criticism that I’m shilling for a guy simply because I’m friendly with him; 2) To explain that I’ve seen him work and that’s why I believe he’s the right guy.

This might be a teeny exaggeration, but I bet you could name any Chicago Public League school or any Chicago area AAU team and he could tell you the name of every single coach with those programs and every single potential recruit. And he doesn’t just reach out to the big shots and the “champions.”

One day when I stopped by DePaul for a practice or workout (I forget which), Gene had an entire Public League team in the gym to observe. The team didn’t have a D-1 recruit and I believe it was even in the Blue Division, but Gene thought it was just a good thing for everybody involved to get to have the experience. And, hey, if that school ever happened to have a D-1 kid, then so much the better, but you get the point.

He recruited Wilson Chandler, the recent first-round draft pick, to DePaul. Several Public League players kept Virginia on their list far longer than anyone would expect, simply because of their connection with Cross (and Leitao).

All right. Off the soapbox. I’m sure by bringing up Cross’ name (and suggesting he won’t greet reporters with a sneer) probably crushes his candidacy, if he even wants to leave Notre Dame’s upwardly mobile program.

But the dude PLAYED at Illinois (check out his high-top fade on old highlight clips) and GRADUATED from Illinois. If an alum with long-time Chicago connections can’t sell the Illini and bring in recruits, then you wonder if anyone can.

LW

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