The 12 Days of Illini Christmas

Putting an orange and blue twist on a Christmas classic, here's the "12 Days of Christmas" IlliniPlaybook style.

On the first day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me..

The head coach, J-F-G

Let's face it. Illinois fans are excited about John Groce being at the helm of the Illinois basketball program. He's been recruiting at a high level and is doing more with the roster he inherited than most expected. Groce had the program within striking distance of a sweet-sixteen berth last season and just in time for Christmas, his squad knocked off Missouri for the first time in 5 years.

On the second day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me..

Two more years of Cubit

Something Illinois fans are happy about too is the extension of offensive coordinator Bill Cubit. The former Western Michigan head coach was responsible for the revival of the Illinois offense this past season, and extending him through the 2015 season with weapons like Josh Ferguson and Wes Lunt at his disposal ought to mean that the scoreboard operator will stay plenty busy at Memorial Stadium.

On the third day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me..

A win over Mizzery

As it was just stated, Illinois came into the annual Braggin Rights game having lost the last four contests. But grit and toughness won that one out as Tracy Abrams proved he can close a game and that the team can counterpunch when in a tough situation. After dropping a couple tough games in non-conference play, Illinois got one fit to put under the tree with the win over their "Arch" rivals.

On the fourth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Four football brothers

This year's football recruiting class brings in one pair of brothers at key positions and reunites one older brother with his younger brother. Tyrin Stone-Davis and Tyree-Stone-Davis, receiver and cornerback, respectively, are physically-gifted athletes at their positions and fill key roles for the Illinois football team. Not only that, they both have three years of eligibility, so they should be able to contribute significant time while at Illinois. Also, Peter Cvijanovic, younger brother of current starting offensive lineman Simon Cvijanovic, joins the 2014 recruiting class and keeps the Cvijanovic pipeline flowing.

On the fifth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Five transfers in

Ok so they didn't all come in one year, but Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey, Darius Paul, Aaron Cosby, and Ahmad Starks are all part of the rebuilding process John Groce has put in motion for the basketball roster. Rice's impact has already been felt, leading the Illini in scoring in a majority of games, and Ekey has likely exceeded the expectations of many, as he has provided more than just perimeter shooting so far. After this season, Ekey will graduate, but the other four transfers should all play significant roles in games next year.

On the sixth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Six JUCO players

One thing that was clear in the 2013 class was that Illinois was not afraid to search the junior college ranks to get players who could contribute early. The coaches went right back to the well this year and currently have six junior college players committed including four who have already signed letters of intent. In addition to Tyrin and Tyree Stone-Davis, Illinois inked Iowa Western receiver Geronimo Allison, a rangy athlete who is a jump ball mismatch. On the defensive side of the ball, it's all about the defensive linemen. Illinois brings in Siosifa "Joe" Fotu, Carroll Phillips, and highly-touted Jihad Ward. Defensive line was a huge area of concern, but these guys should at least help move the defense in the right direction up front.

On the seventh day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Seven game home win streak

One thing you have to do to be successful is win at home. Right now, the Illinois basketball team is riding a seven-game home win streak. Champaign is never an easy place to play, and the Orange Krush is one of the premier student sections in the country. Having weathered a majority of the "break games" where the students are away, Illinois will need to have the Krush and the State Farm Center loud to get a boost when Big Ten season comes around.

On the eighth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Eight newcomers playing

The Illinois basketball roster looks significantly different than last year. And the turnover in the roster is one of the most drastic in the history of the program. But eight Illini are playing in their first year of eligibility with the program. Rayvonte Rice, Jon Ekey, Maverick Morgan, Kendrick Nunn, Jaylon Tate, Mike LaTulip, Austin Colbert, and Malcolm Hill have all seen action this year, and a few of those guys have been heavily relied upon already. Rice leads the Illini in scoring, Ekey is a three point threat and solid rebounder, and Tate has played considerable minutes at the point guard position to spell Tracy Abrams. More will join this squad next year, but these guys have stepped in to make an early impact.

On the ninth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Nine early signees

The same that was true with JUCO players is true with early signees. What in the past was only an occasional one or two early enrollees has ballooned into nine in the 2014 class. Junior college players Tyree and Tyrin Stone-Davis, Joe Fotu, and Geronimo Allison are all set to arrive on campus for the spring semester. Five high school/prep school players will also arrive in January. In-state commits Mike Dudek and Nick Allegretti of Neuqua Valley and Lincoln-Way East will enroll early and likely compete for early playing time. Also, Peter Cvijanovic of East Coast Prep will join his brother and have an extra few months in the college weight program with the hopes of playing early. Quarterback Chayce Crouch of Ohio joins a loaded quarterback group at Illinois, but will get a head start under coach Bill Cubit. The ninth early enrollee was actually a member of the 2013 class in Miami Norland DL Paul James. While many hoped James would join the team last fall, his arrival is still welcomed as the defensive line needed personnel in the worst way.

On the tenth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Ten wins by Christmas

Ok, sure they should have won the Georgia Tech game, and yeah they could have won against Oregon, but considering the state of flux that the roster has been in, the basketball team has managed 10 wins before December 25th, most notably and recently a tournament resume building win against Missouri. The Big Ten schedule won't be very forgiving, so wins in a tough non-conference schedule were crucial not only for the tournament resume, but also for building confidence with a roster containing so many new faces.

On the eleventh day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Winning by eleven

Illinois has always done well on the defensive end, but by getting more shots up each game, the Illini have increased their offensive output and are outscoring opponents on average by close to 11 points per game. Illinois is averaging 71 points per game while opponents are averaging just over 60 points per game. Obviously some of the early games will have inflated that number, but a double digit scoring margin in their favor is something they can hang their hat on.. at least until the Big Ten grind begins.

On the twelfth day of Christmas, the Illini gave to me...

Twelve months of Illinois Athletics

Frustrating at times, exciting at times, disappointing at times, thrilling at times, fulfilling at times, and pride-invoking at times, it's been another great year of Illinois athletics. And it wasn't just football and basketball, but volleyball hosted the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament or Mens Golf coming within a few strokes of a national championship. 2013 isn't entirely over yet, but 2014 promises to be another interesting year of Illinois sports.

Speaking of 12 months, it's not too late to get your favorite Illini fan the holiday gift that will last a year. Make sure you keep it locked in here at Illini Playbook for all of the best coverage that the year 2014 has to offer.

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