The best part of the bowl season hasn't even begun, but Big Ten basketball is upon us. Illinois puts its intriguing 12-1 nonconference start on the line at No. 9 Purdue, the pre-season favorite to win the league, tonight, followed by four more New Year's Eve openers on Wednesday. There's no doubt that things are looking up in Big Ten hoops, which has five ranked teams and two more, Illinois and Wisconsin, that could enter the top-25 picture. Some new coaches are making strides in their rebuilding efforts, and teams that have known recent success are showing signs they're ready to keep rolling. Even teams that have struggled have given hints they'll be more competitive. Here are some things Midwestern basketball fans ought to be curious about--I know I am--as the Big Ten heads into what could be a very close, and entertaining, conference race: * Can Tom Izzo put all those pieces together? Purdue is the more proven commodity, but No. 10 Michigan State, which oozes athleticism and balance, has the biggest upside--if it can find a way to play to its potential. * Is Purdue ready to handle the burden of expectations? Because they were so good last year, it's easy to forget that E'Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel are still sophomores. And even if the Boilermakers measure up in the poise department, is that frontline going to hold up? * Did Wisconsin's nonconference setbacks (Connecticut, Marquette, Texas) expose some serious flaws, or were they more a product of a challenging set of opponents that have toughened up the Badgers for league play? * With David Lighty out, a reloading No. 24 Ohio State will have one less veteran to lean on. Was that loss to West Virginia a sign of trouble, or just a case of the holiday blahs? * What's the deal with No. 21 Minnesota and No. 23 Michigan? The 12-0 Gophers have looked awfully good. So have the 9-2 Wolverines, who have beaten UCLA and Duke. Are either, or both, of these nonconference over-achievers going to hold up and become major surprises? * Penn State and Northwestern have been down so long, they're easy to overlook. Are the Nittany Lions, who have decent depth behind 5-11 sophomore Talor Battle and senior Jamelle Cornley, going to do more than pull off the occasional upset? The same question applies for NU. The Wildcats have a good nucleus in Kevin Coble, Craig Moore and Michael Thompson, if the young big men can contribute. * Is Iowa on the road back? The Hawkeyes have shown a few signs, but in this improving Big Ten, they face an uphill climb until they prove otherwise. * Is there any way Indiana can avoid having a miserable season? Seems unlikely. That said, the rest of the league better take advantage of the IU situation now. Because as grim as things look now, Tom Crean is going to have the Hoosiers back on top quickly. * Is there a bigger mystery team in the league than Illinois? At 12-1, the Illini seem poised to be better than a distant also-ran. They have three seniors who make the most of their talent, and three promising sophomore starters. If Kentucky transfer Alex Legion lives up to his press clippings, Illinois' sophomores will win a lot of games in their careers. The question is, where does Illinois fit in this year? The suspicion is that it will duel Minnesota and Michigan for an upper-division finish and an NCAA berth. But there are a lot of teams that could move up or down this year, making the Big Ten more wide-open this year than it's been in a long time. And that means there are a lot of interesting hoops questions swirling around the Big Ten--and the answers will start coming even before the traditional New Year's Day football feast has been served.
It's still too early to start making nonrefundable NCAA tournament plans. Even with a 10-1 start, Illinois needs to prove itself against tougher competition, and that won't be easy because the Big Ten is looking much deeper. Everybody knows about Michigan State and Purdue. And Wisconsin and Ohio State aren't far behind, although the Buckeyes' loss of Todd Lighty for at least six weeks is a major blow. Minnesota and Michigan, which both have posted quality wins amid strong starts, have shown the most after the league's top four. And Penn State figures to be more competitive this year. So the Illini have their work cut out to earn a spot in the Big Dance. particularly because Iowa and Northwestern, who also are improved, are their single plays. But one thing Illinois has going for it this year is unity. ``We have a lot better chemistry this year than last year. Nobody's arguing or fighting with the coach,'' said Calvin Brock, the latest member of the Illini family to allude to the rift between Bruce Weber and Shaun Pruitt, not to mention the uncertainty created by Brian Randle's chronic injuries. ``Everybody's trying to play hard. Everybody knows their role and is staying within themselves. It's a good start for us. Now we just have to continue.'' Considering all the recruiting breakthroughs Weber has made in the last year or so, there's a nice aura around a program that also had to weather the Jamar Smith and Eric Gordon setbacks. No matter what happens this year, it appears that the Illini cupboard will be well stocked for the next few years. And the addition of Alex Legion makes an already solid sophomore core look even more intriguing in terms of this season.
Below is the release detailing the awards given out at Illinois' football banquet Saturday night. But first, I'll just make this comment: No disrespect to Arrelious Benn, who's a standout player and a standup guy who made some big contributions. If the team wants to honor a player who's going to return in 2009 for leadership purposes, he's a good choice. But the MVP of this team, plain and simple, was Brit Miller. If Illinois had won a few more games by scoring more points and making fewer turnovers--in other words, with the exact same defense--Miller could have been in the discussion for Big Ten defensive player of the year. It's hard to imagine that defense without Miller, who finished fifth in the nation, and first in the Big Ten, in tackles. He not only made plays, but he was the defensive quarterback, a special-teams stalwart--and he was a terrific all-around leader and ambassador for Illinois football. To reiterate, Rejus Benn is a terrific athlete, and a classy kid who's going to play football on Sundays for a long time--and I'm looking forward to watching his continued development in Champaign before he moves on. But just as sure as Ron Santo deserves to be in the Hall of Fame--and shame on you, Hall of Fame voters--Brit Miller was the Most Valuable Player of the 2008 Illinois football team.
Illini Honor 17 Seniors at Annual Banquet Benn Scores Most Valuable Player Award
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - The Fighting Illini football team, families and friends gathered to honor 17 seniors and the season's award winners at the 107th annual football banquet sponsored for the 89th straight year by the Rotary Club, Saturday night at Memorial Stadium.
The following are the Illini award winners from the 2008 Illinois Football Banquet:
Most Valuable Player: Arrelious Benn, wide receiver Benn finished the season with 1,055 receiving yards, the first 1,000-yard receiving year for an Illini since 2002. It was also the fifth-best performance for the Illini in a season. During the year, he put together four consecutive 100-yard games, the first time for an Illini. He finished the year with 67 catches, one in every game and five touchdowns.
Most Improved Player: Michael Hoomanawanui In his first two years combined, Hoomanawanui had seven catches. Last year alone he hauled in 25. He was integral in the Illinois passing game ranking No. 1 in the Big Ten. He scored two touchdowns and had 312 yards.
Rookie of the Year: Jason Ford, running back & Corey Liuget, defensive tackle Ford and Liuget share the award this season. Both athletes came to Illinois and made an immediate impact as true freshmen. Ford started two games at running back, scoring a team-high eight touchdowns. He rushed for 172 yards against Indiana, which was the second-most by a freshman in school history. Liuget did what many could not. He started as a true-freshman on the defensive line. He logged 26 tackles, five for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 with two recovered fumbles.
Outstanding Offensive Back: Juice Williams, quarterback Outstanding Offensive Lineman: Jon Asamoah, offensive guard Outstanding Defensive Lineman: Derek Walker, defensive end Outstanding Linebacker: Brit Miller Outstanding Defensive Back: Dere Hicks, cornerback Outstanding Special Teams Award: Nate Bussey, defensive back; Matt Eller, placekicker I BELIEVE Key Contributors Award: Eric Block, offensive line; Will Davis, defensive end; Rodney Pittman, linebacker; Will Judson, wide receiver
Wright Commitment to Excellence Award: David Lindquist, defensive line Lindquist came to Illinois as a walk-on. In two years he had earned a scholarship and in three was a starter on the defensive line. In four years, he totaled 132 tackles, 20.5 for loss and 10.5 quarterback sacks. The Wright Commitment to Excellence Award is presented to the individual who has dedicated themselves to academic excellence despite obstacles faced during his collegiate career.
Bruce Capel Award: Xavier Fulton, offensive line Fulton overcame great obstacles to be a two-time All-Big Ten offensive lineman. He blew his knee out as a true-sophomore as a defensive lineman and when he returned to health moved to the offensive side of the ball. Despite no experience at the position, he started every game in two years even with a shoulder injury making that feat more difficult. The Bruce Capel Award is given to the Illini player who displays the most courage, dedication and accomplishment throughout the season.
Monsignor E. Duncan Award: Kameno Bell The Monsignor Edward J. Duncan Award, the Illini team chaplain since 1943, was initiated in 1994 in recognition of the more than 60 years of service the director of the Newman Foundation has provided the football team and Division of Intercollegiate Athletics. The award is presented annually to the University of Illinois football letterman, which has displayed exemplary integrity and dedication to this community/state/country/church through public service and citizenship. This year's recipient is Kameno Bell. Bell was a three-year letterwinner at Illinois and the 1991 MVP. His two goals were to come to Illinois as a walk on and contribune and become a physician. He did both. Bell is currently a on the clinical staff at the Hackensack Medical University, while also serving as the associate team physician for the New York Giants.
Scholar-Athlete Award: Ryan McDonald, offensive lineman (3.83 GPA in aerospace engineering/graduate school)
Rotary Service Beyond Self Award: Sam Carson, linebacker
Scout Team Players of the Year: Jarred Fayson, wide receiver (offense); Whitney Mercilus, defensive line (defense)
2008 Team Captains: Brit Miller, linebacker; David Lindquist, defensive line; Juice Williams, quarterback; Arrelious Benn, wide receiver.
Coach Ron Zook declined to mention any names when I asked him about his vacant offensive coordinator job Saturday. But a source tells me Chuck Long is among the candidates. And Long, who also is being mentioned for a job at Kansas State, would be a very good fit in Champaign. Long, who's from Wheaton, was a star quarterback at Iowa and with the Detroit Lions before becoming Oklahoma's offensive coordinator. He was fired last month after three seasons as head coach at San Diego State, which shocked him by buying out the remaining two years on his contract a month after he received a vote of confidence. ``I think bitter is the right word,'' Long told the New York Times. ``[But] you can't let those things fester too long. Otherwise, they start to eat you up. I didn't like the way it went down.'' Long has the personality, the coaching background and the recruiting potential that could make him a very strong addition to Zook's staff. But Long will need to work out some delicate, and potentially difficult, contractual issues with his buyout, which is worth more than $1 million, before taking another job elsewhere. Long also has been mentioned as a candidate for the offensive coordinator job at Kansas State, which recently brought back retired coach Bill Snyder. Zook is genuinely impressed by the interest being shown in his vacant offensive coordinator job. He hasn't decided whether to fill the job from within, where he has several strong candidates, or to bring in a new offensive coordinator. One key is keeping the chemistry he has among his assistants. That said, if one of the outsiders fits in from a chemistry standpoint, he's likely to be strong in other ways, too. Former NFL coaches Dan Reeves and Dick Vermiel have contacted Zook to offer recommendations for candidates who are interested in replacing Mike Locksley as Illinois' offensive coordinator. ``I don't know what I'm going to do,'' Zook said, adding that he's not going to rush the hire. ``We have a great offensive staff here, but there are so many great ones out there that are interested. I just want to make sure we don't want to mess up the chemistry we have.''
With offensive coordinator Mike Locksley moving on to become the head coach at New Mexico, a key question is how the departure of a big-time recruiter will impact the Illinois program. But Ron Zook said it won't necessarily mean a step backward. Zook is leaving the door open to promoting from within or going outside for his next O coordinator. But whether the new assistant is the coordinator or a position coach, expect Zook to bring in a top-notch recruiter. While intent on keeping open the recruiting trail that Locksley blazed from Washington, D.C., to Champaign, Zook said the new assistant could open up new recruiting turf for a staff that places a high value on recruiting. ``What if, for example, we bring in somebody from Texas?'' Zook said. ``All of a sudden, you have connections in Texas. And we've built a lot of contacts in the D.C. area. They see guys doing well here, being happy and playing. That's what develops a pipeline. Locks has done a great job there, no question. But we're still going to have an opportunity to do what we've done there.''
Illinois is close to firming up a four-year contract that will make Gonzaga the opponent for its annual United Center game in December, 2009. The agreement calls for the two teams to meet in Seattle in December, 2010 and play in Champaign and at the Zags' Spokane home in the final two years of the deal. The Illini don't have an opponent lined up yet for their 2010 game at the United Center. It's possible that UIC, which is owed another Chicago game by the Illini at some point, could be in that mix. Illinois is scheduled to play in Las Vegas for its usual Thanksgiving tournament venture next year. Bradley is also in that field. For the first time in a while, the basketball team will have to share Thanksgiving-week attention with the football team. Illinois is completing a deal that will have Ron Zook's crew finishing its season with a game at Cincinnati on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The Illini are expected to wrap up their home football slate against Fresno State, giving them two challenging nonconference games at the end of their season.
The Big Ten kept its record of futility at a perfect 0-10 in this year's ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But the six-games-to-five loss at least was close enough that the Big Ten won't be subjected to the disrespect it has experienced in the more lopsided years. That's of little consolation to Illinois, which led Clemson by eight at halftime before losing 76-74. ``It's disappointing,'' Illini coach Bruce Weber said. ``We had our chance. We could have made the difference. We had a winnable home game.''
The frosty relationship between Bruce Weber and Demetri McCamey resurfaced again after McCamey failed to pass, shoot or call a timeout at the end of Illinois' 76-74 loss to Clemson, and it bears watching. Weber refused to start McCamey, his most talented player, in the first two games of the season in an effort to coax more intensity and consistency out of the sophomore point guard. McCamey doesn't seem totally onboard with Weber's tough-love approach, and Weber still seems impatient with McCamey's casual approach. This uneasiness could make them stronger if they get past it--or it could make for more problems. When Weber arrived at Illinois, Dee Brown didn't buy in initially, but when he did, it helped him become a complete, and more mature, player. On the other hand, Weber and Shaun Pruitt never saw eye-to-eye last year, and it cast a pall over the team. The McCamey deal is hardly on the same level, but both of them will benefit immensely, as will the team, if they can get on the same page. That means McCamey needs to step it up, but Weber probably has to watch his step psychologically, too.