With the holiday season upon us – and a week off from basketball games – now is the perfect time to take a look at why Illini fans should be happy. Whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or whatever else, here are 10 reasons to be happy that you’re an Illini fan.
10. The women’s volleyball team is heading to the Final Four- Usually I focus on the big ticket sports like football and basketball, but how awesome is it that the volleyball team is heading to the final four this weekend! The team was number one in the nation for a couple of weeks, and has had a remarkable season. Best of luck ladies!
9. Football isn’t over yet – True, this could be both a good thing and a bad thing, especially with the news that interim coach Vic Koenning will coach the team for the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in San Francisco, but won’t be staying on next year. Nonetheless, this is the second year in a row that the Illini have gone to a bowl game and it gives fans once more chance to watch the Illini in action, especially seniors Jeff Allen and AJ Jenkins. And considering Whitney Mercilus would be a fool not to go pro, it’s one last chance to see him in orange as well.
Also, UCLA isn’t in much better of a position as they also fired their coach and is probably the only D1 team with a losing record to go to a bowl game. Despite the issues that Illinois is facing right now, they could accidentally pull off a win. What a great way to get ready for the new year!
8. A young basketball team means next year could be great – The Illini have six freshmen this year, one of which is almost sure to be redshirting (Devin Langford has been injured since before the season began). Mike Shaw and Tracy Abrams are showing oodles of promise, as is Myke Henry. A lot of people like Nnanna Egwu, but I get nervous every time he touches the ball. With a little more practice and if he can calm the heck down he could be pretty good. Then there is also Ibby Djimde,who is progressing nicely as well.
The basketball team will just lose one senior in Sam Maniscalco for next year, and though he is integral this year, Abrams should be able to progress to pick up some of the slack left behind. DJ Richardson and Brandon Paul will be in their last year and hungry for some sort of title before they have to leave town. As good as the team ends up being this year, next year they will be even better.
7. Richardson and Paul are playing well at the same time, and those with “potential” are starting to show it – Last year, one of the big problems with the basketball team is that one person would have a good game while someone else sucked. This year, juniors Richardson and Paul are both doing well and showing the younger guys how to win games. Richardon’s mojo has lasted 10 games in, and Paul took matters into his own game against St. Bonaventure and appeared half man/half amazing by scoring 11 points in the last 4 minutes to win the game.
For years we’ve been hearing that Tyler Griffey (also a junior) and Joseph Bertrand (redshirt soph) had tons of talent and potential, but it wasn’t until this year that it was actually demonstrated. Neither are putting up numbers that will affix them to the star watch, but both of them are coming through when necessary and doing all the little things that need to be done to win games. Crandall Head is also slowly getting back into the mix, giving Coach Bruce Weber an extra-deep bench.
6. The B1G is looking good overall – The Big Ten Network is a hit, Nebraska joined the conference smoothly before all the silly gibberish about teams like Boise State headed to the Big East and what not, and both conference football and basketball programs are finding success this year.
The first-ever conference football championship went on without a hitch, with Michigan State and Wisconsin putting on a great show. A whopping 10 out of 12 B1G teams will head to a bowl this year (better luck next year Indiana and Minnesota) and the college season ended up being much more exciting than anyone anticipated with teams like Purdue and Illinois even squeaking by.
As for basketball, as much as it pains me, Indiana is showing some life with that amazing win against Kentucky (I can’t hate on that last-second shot) and both IU and Illinois are undefeated for the year. Also, 6 teams are currently nationally ranked.
It’s great to be a part of the B1G this year!
5. Whitney Mercilus is making the football team look awesome – Just yesterday the Associated Press named Mercilus an All-American, which added to the mile-long list of accolades he has earned this season. The junior defensive end leads the nation in sacks (14.5), sacks per game (1.21) and forced fumbles (9) in 2011. He also is tied for fifth in the nation and leads the Big Ten in tackles for loss with 19.5.
Mercilus looking good makes the Illini look even better. Take a gander at the other feathers in his hat so far this year. Also, get ready to say goodbye because he’d be a fool not to go pro:
• Ted Hendricks National Defensive End of the Year Award winner
• Bill Willis Defensive Lineman of the Year Award winner
• First-Team All-American (AP, FWAA, Walter Camp, AFCA, CBSSports.com, ESPN.com, Phil Steele, SI.com, Yahoo.com)
• Honorable Mention All-American (Pro Football Weekly)
• Bronko Nagurski Trophy Finalist
• Bednarik Award and Rotary Lombardi Award Semifinalist
• First-Team All-Big Ten (Coaches and Media)
4. We have a new AD and our noses are clean- We had to say goodbye to Ron Guenther at the end of July, but then we got to say hello to Mike Thomas. Thomas has already cleaned house by getting rid of the failing football coach Ron Zook quickly and efficiently and ripped the band-aid off immediately after Minnesota made us look dumb. He also hired a new coach swiftly and clearly stands behind his decision. Guenther was getting old and lazy, while Thomas is ready to bring home championships.
On the same measure, at a time where football and basketball teams around the country are going through serious issues (Penn State, Ohio State, Miami, etc.) the Illinois program is clean as a whistle.
3. We have a new football coach – Tim Beckman, formerly of Toledo, was recently announced as the new head football coach, and his enthusiasm is catching. Many like to say that he is so energetic that he “scares caffeine” but I’ve got no problem with that. Zook was charming and suave, but I’ve heard some negative comments about him in the past from former players, etc. Beckman is eager to please and he won the hearts of Illini fans with his first press conference, his orange tie, and his promise of lasagna.
2. Meyers Leonard is a beast – Last year, Leonard played about 8 minutes a game and averaged 2 points and 1 rebound. This year, Leonard is a starter who know has 3 double doubles. He plays about 26 minutes a game and is averaging 13.4 points (second to only Richardson) and 7.2 rebounds (leads the team). His field goal percentage is 63.8, putting him at 14th in the nation. Some are speculating that Leonard will leave for the NBA this year, though I think he needs one more year in college to mature a little more (that’s another post). Either way, after four years of a big man who ate 6,000 calories but didn’t gain any weight until his senior year (soft, pudgy weight I might add) we finally have a big man that can handle a double team with ease. Also, he loves to dunk. Leonard needs to calm down sometimes and keep his emotions in check, but we are lucky to have such a talented big man on the team.
1. The basketball team is undefeated and ranked, and they’re having fun – The Illini are currently 10-0 and ranked 19 in the nation on both polls. Many of the games were ones they were supposed to win, but they also can boast a Cancun Challenge tournament win, a road win at Maryland and a home win against a formerly ranked Gonzaga team that will just get better.
Even more importantly, about half of the games that the Illini won this year they would not have won last year. It’s just a fact. This year’s team loves to play the game, appear to love each other, and – most importantly – want to win. These guys are having fun and it shows with the W’s, and the style of play. They are fun to watch and they are winning. True, we’re only 10 games in, but they might actually maybe possibly be for real. I better not have to eat my words on this one guys.
It’s great to be an Illini fan this holiday season!