It was another Saturday full of frustration and full of optimism. In one moment you were watching in awe at the improvement the Illini football program has made and a few minutes later you were banging your head against the wall at some of the mistakes they were making. It's been that kind of a year for the Illinois football fans and it's been tough to take at times, but I will take that over the last four seasons where there was little sign of any life.
The Illini played a very good team this past Saturday in Wisconsin and they dominated them in the first half. They moved the football, they didn't make mistakes and they shut down an exceptional running attack. They had the game in their hands and even though they once again let it slip away (for the 4th straight week I might add!) it was the fact that they were right there with a very good football team in one of the toughest venues that was so encouraging.
Two years from now and even a year from now there won't be any moral victories and I certainly won't be waxing poetic about blowing the type of lead that the Illini did this past Saturday. There's going to come a point in time in the Zook era (that point is coming soon) where the ‘We have a young group of guys' line of thinking won't be valid anymore.
But until that point and until that moment, I am going to be excited about where this program is heading and the type of progress we have seen each and every week since the bad stretch at the beginning of the season.
MUSINGS FROM MADISON
- Derrick McPhearson: It was great to see DMac catch that ball from Juice and turn it into a big game. It's been way too long since we have seen an Illinois wide receiver create something after making a catch (my friend joked in a text that he broke the record for YAC in that one play) and that was the type of athleticism, speed and play-making ability we all expected when DMac arrived on campus.
He is a guy that we all have expected a lot from and he is someone who I have been hard on at times and it's been great to see him in the last few games starting to make some plays.
- J. Leman: Not much more I can say except that deserves to be SERIOUSLY considered for the Big Ten All First-Team. He has played that way this year and he continues to make more and more plays each and every Saturday.
- Stuffing the Run: For years, the Illini defense was porous when it came to stopping another teams running attack. When the Illini used to play a team with a solid running attack, that team would eventually completely wear down the Illini front seven and run all over them. Not anymore! The Illini front seven has a long way to go to being dominant, but they have become a solid unit—a unit that in the last two weeks has put the clamps on two very good running attacks.
- Coach Zook: He has a long way to go to turning this around, but when you really think about it Coach Zook has been a breath of fresh air for this football program. He has recruited like we are a big time program, he has brought energy and passion to a program that was completely lacking it and he has made sure to make the public appearances and connect with the fan base that many coaches don't take the time or effort to do.
I have never emailed Coach Zook, but I know a lot of people who have and most of those emails get returned—not by a secretary, but by Coach Zook. That is extremely impressive from a guy who has as much on his plate as he does.
There are times when I question some of his clock management and when I wonder if all the things we heard about being him being a poor game day coach from the Florida fans and the national media are true, but we have to give him time. I laugh each and every week when I see some of the fans on the message boards going crazy after these losses—give the guy some time! Kirk Ferentz is one of the best coaches in the country and he barely won any games his first two years.
Commitment can be defined a lot of ways. Different dictionaries define it simply as a "pledge to do" or "the act of binding yourself (intellectually or emotionally) to a course of action." It seems like an easy concept right? Well let me take a few minutes to vent, because I am not so sure the concept exists anymore.
Commitment? A long time ago people would commit and stay at their jobs for 20-30 years. Today it's abnormal not to have worked five jobs by the time you are 25. Commitment? How can we all talk about commitment when the divorce rate in this country continues to rise astronomically each and every year! And lastly it's almost comical that we use the word commitment when it comes to college recruiting because the word commitment in college sports most of the time is defined as, ‘I choose you unless I find something better.'
It's been over two weeks now since we learned that Eric Gordon de-committed from Illinois and decided to be an Indiana Hoosier. I've spent the last two Bleeding columns barely touching the subject, because I really needed those two weeks to decompress and evaluate what really happened. Gordon had been a ‘verbal' commitment to Illinois and Bruce Weber for almost a year, but yet just a few weeks before he could officially sign on the dotted line he decided that Indiana was the place for him.
Not to get too far off topic, but from this point on I will be referring to ‘verbal' commitments in Bleeding as ‘Maybe's.' I am so tired of hearing people say that he has ‘verballed' or that he made a verbal commitment to the school. Each and every year—especially on the football side of things—we have seen maybes become less and less reliable. As a fan, it's come to the point where maybe's just mean that you are the leader.
It's really hard to put into words or even assess the damage that the Eric Gordon de-commitment did to the Illinois basketball program. The truth of the matter is that Gordon's decision hurts the program on a number of levels. The first thing you have to recognize is that Illinois just lost one of the—if not THE—best player in the country. Gordon is a special, special athlete and one that every single one of us envisioned in the orange and blue.
For the better part of a year, we didn't worry as much about this upcoming season because we knew it would only be a year until Eric Gordon arrived. We watched him single-handedly stop a two-on-one break by blocking the back-end of an alley-oop, we watched him take a steal at half court and finish it with a tomahawk dunk and we imagined watching him make those incredible plays in the Assembly Hall.
On another level, the Illini coaching staff recruited over the last year knowing that they had Eric Gordon as part of their 2007 recruiting class. There had to be countless number of players who they passed over and other prospects who knew Gordon was going to be there and decided to look the other way. It's virtually impossible for the coaching staff to replace Eric Gordon with someone of equal talent/ability and it leaves them in a very tough spot with just weeks until signing day. Some will criticize the staff for not having a back-up plan or not seeing this coming earlier and maybe they are right but I don't know. How could they plan for that when EJ told them time and time again that he was going to be an Illini?
To me the most important aspect of the de-commitment is the effect it has on this staff's local and national reputation as recruiters. Since Coach Weber took over the Illinois basketball program so much has been made about his recruiting prowess—or lack there of—and his inability to bring in the McDonald's All-American Tier One type player. Being able to go out of state and getting one of the elite players in the country quieted a lot of those critics—many of who reside within the Illinois fan base. Now that he has lost Gordon those questions will once again be asked and the critics will surface again.
And to be honest, how can anyone blame them?
As the years go on and the recruiting classes go by the names continue to mount. The best players in the state of Illinois—and in the country for that matter—continue to go elsewhere. Shaun Livingston, Julian Wright, Jon Scheyer and Eric Gordon are just some of the names and examples of this staffs inability to land the big time high school basketball players. We are now years removed from the run to the Final Four and honestly we have yet to see the impact of that run on the recruiting trail. I know some experts predicted that it would take two to three years after a Final Four run to see the impact on recruiting and if that's the case why do we sit here today with a class of McCamey, Mike Tisdale and Bill Cole with two scholarships still open in the Class of 2007?
Don't get me wrong—I firmly believe those three guys are going to be very solid players for the program but I don't think any of them has the ability to be a star. You win national championships with a combination of role players and stars—right now I don't see the stars in the program or even on the horizon.
In a lot of ways, I have mixed feelings. I like Bruce Weber. He is an outstanding game-day coach and an extremely down-to-earth guy. He is approachable, friendly, hard-working and he does things the right way. He is a guy that we all can relate to and quite honesty he is extremely easy to root for.
In addition to that, he has a staff that is equally hard-working and has many of the same qualities that makes Coach Weber so likeable. Jay Price, Tracy Webster and Coach McClain are all good guys—loyal guys who are busting their butts to bring in the best players they can.
With all that said there's comes a point in time where you just have to get it done. I know as fans we probably only understand 1/10th of the garbage that goes on when you are recruiting these big time high school basketball players. I also know there are a bevy of excuses and reasons we didn't get a lot of the best players in the state since Coach Weber took over and honestly a lot of those reasons are probably legitimate but you are what your record says you are and right now their record says they have failed to bring in a top-30 talent.
It's time—possibly well past the time—for this staff to start bringing in these types of players. Eric Gordon was this type of player and for one reason or another, he no longer can be included on Bruce Weber's recruiting resume.
This doesn't mean it's time to jump off the bridge and give up on the program. It's far from that and believe me I understand that Bruce Weber and this staff has done nothing but win since they arrived on campus. They have been outstanding as coaches and have done an incredible job of developing the talent that was already here or that they brought in. Until they start to lose, there's nothing to panic about but there's certainly enough evidence to be very worried.
RUMINATIONS FROM WEEK 8
**Not much to say in this weeks ruminations, but I am going to touch on Jim Grabowski's announced retirement in one of these Bleedings coming up. I was real sad to hear that he had decided to leave after this season, because he is an exceptional color guy on the broadcast. I don't care who they end up getting to replace Grabo—he won't be as good**
**The Ohio State Buckeyes head into Champaign this week and they will be bringing probably eight to ten thousand of their fans with them. The Buckeyes come in undefeated and really have shown time and time again this year that they are the best team in the country.
I have been wrong all year and I hope I am wrong again, but I just don't see the Illini hanging in this game for more than a quarter. The Buckeyes are too good, too strong and too deep to let the Illini hang around.
I would love to see Illinois pull out all the stops to stay in this game. I would try on-side kicks, trick plays and do everything I could to try and keep the crowd in a frenzy and keep the Buckeyes on their heels. I am excited for the game—it's an opportunity on national television to take another step forward.