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Have the Illinois Fighting Illini really turned a corner under John Groce?

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Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

Those words have great application around what took place for the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball program over the last few years. After all, we saw Illinois do some serious damage against its non-conference schedules the last few years, only to be burned by reality of the rough and tumble Big Ten.

When the chips were in the middle, the Illini were more a product of mediocre non-conference competition than actual contender in the best basketball conference in the country.

Last season this team won its first seven games, and 10 of its first 12 (including a win over No. 23 Missouri). That led to many believing the Illini could compete for an NCAA berth at worst in the Big Ten.

Instead, the Illini finished the year ranked next-to-last among Big Ten teams in scoring average (64.2), field-goal shooting (41.1 percent) and three-point shooting (31.7), and that led to 7-11 conference record and a berth in the NIT.

It wasn’t a blip on the radar in the John Groce era either, as it was a familiar situation to his first season at the helm of the program.

Two years ago, in Groce’s first season the Illini went 12-0 to start the season, before losing to rival No. 12 Missouri. Illinois would go on to open up Big Ten play with a loss at Purdue and win against then-No. 8 Ohio State. That would be the final win against a ranked opponent, as the Illini went all tailspin and finished with an 8-10 conference record and backed in to an NCAA tournament appearance.

Point being, both seasons ended completely different from the perception of the Illini gave off in non-conference play.

However, all of that appears to be on its way to changing. On Friday, Illinois knocked off Austin Peay 107-66, scoring 100 points in back-to-back wins, tying a school record for most made three-pointers in two games (29) and shooting 54.7 percent from deep in the process.

The players apparently are having more fun, including senior center Nnanna Egwu. He’s one of the players who has been the most inconsistent over the last few years.

“This is a fun team, to be honest, to play with,” said Egwu, following the win on Friday night. “Sometimes I wish I could just sit back and watch them.”

What is perhaps the biggest difference is this team is doing its scoring in bunches by different players. Against Austin Peay, Egwu was one of five players in double figures, scoring 13 points himself.

The Illini have five players averaging double figures through three games this season. Potential star Rayvonte Rice leads the way (18ppg), followed by Malcolm Hill (13.3), Ahmad Starks (13.3), Aaron Cosby (13.0) and Leron Black (10.7).

Impressive numbers, especially for a team that struggled to score points and shoot the ball well last season. There’s little doubt the potential to be great is there, but many in the media have already bought in.

Call me a jaded sports writer or call me someone who had bought in one too many times, but I’m not buying what this team is selling me just yet. It’s one thing to fix scoring issues against the likes of Coppin State and Austin Peay, who combined to go 24-38 last season, at home. It’s another thing to do it in the Kohl Center, Breslin Center or Value City Arena.

Until this team can beat more than one ranked Big Ten team on the road, this team still will have questions needed to be answered. Only, this Illini team may be much more fun to watch no matter what is happening in the win or loss column.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Illini Football

Predicting the 2018 Illinois Fighting Illini season game-by-game

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We’re nearing game week and that means it is time to gather all the intel possible and make the best decisions possible…because it’s time to put our money where our mouths are. 

Yes, the annual tradition of Illinois Fighting Illini season predictions is back. Yes, we’re also going to break down the season in game-by-game fashion. 

No, you won’t see it in the written form. Instead, we’re going 21st century and giving you our publisher, Andrew Coppens, thoughts in video format. 

The Illini went first (no coincidence to alphabetical order), so you can follow along by subscribing to our YouTube channel as well. 

Don’t forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook. Also don’t forget to join in the conversation below and let us know your thoughts on the season and your predictions too! 

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Illini Football

Illini look to fresh jerseys to help reboot football program

Illinois reaches to its successful past in hopes of sparking interest in struggling football program of today. It means new uniforms for the football program.

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Nothing says trying to shed a bad image like rebooting your jersey and helmet looks. When you’re the Illinois Fighting Illini and you’ve compiled a whopping 5-19 overall record and just two Big Ten wins in the last two years, a reboot is probably a good idea.

On Friday morning, the Illini announced exactly that, keeping the school colors and even the Gray Ghost uniforms they have worn to pay homage to the Galloping Ghost himself, Harold “Red” Grange. The new uniforms feature a much simpler look and a more defined block “I” on the v of the neck.

For you old-timers out there, these uniforms are likely to look very familiar to you. That’s because they harken back to the Illini glory days of the Dick Butkus era in the 1960’s.

One of the biggest additions to the uniform combinations is that of a re-designed orange helmet. Gone is the metallic look, replaced by a matted finish and a color that more accurately fits the uniform color as well.

Illinois will begin wearing the new gear for the home opener on Sept. 1 against Kent State and of course will begin to be available for purchase (blue only apparently) this fall as well.

As for the design, I like the simplified look and feel of the jersey. Illinois has a color scheme that stands out in the Big Ten, so why try to hide it. Instead, they are embracing history and moving forward to hopefully more success.

With all the momentum off the field, hopefully Love Smith and crew can deliver some of that same momentum on the field. We’ll have an idea about that when the Illini hold an open practice tomorrow, April 7.

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Illini Hockey

Feasibility study suggests Illini could add hockey program

Feasibility study recommends Illini add men’s hockey program, will the Illini actually follow through?

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The state of Illinois is one of the most talent-rich areas for youth hockey in the United States of America outside the state of Minnesota. Yet, kids growing up in the state have little choice but to head outside of the state if they want to play on the highest levels.

All of that could be changing in the near future, as the University of Illinois athletic department announced the findings of a feasibility study in to adding hockey as a varsity sport. The findings indicated that adding the sport would be something positive.

“The strong consensus of everyone involved in college hockey is that NCAA men’s hockey will flourish at the University of Illinois,” said Mike Snee, executive director of College Hockey, Inc. “From the number of native Illinois players currently playing college hockey to the continued growth of youth hockey players in the state, there are many reasons to be confident that the Fighting Illini could quickly become a top national program and sustain it every year.  We are very appreciative of the University administration’s willingness to consider bringing NCAA hockey to Champaign.”

The NHL and it’s Player’s Association are also on board with the Illini adding hockey and indicated they agree with what the folks at College Hockey, Inc. had to say. Additionally, the university athletics department made it clear they would be open to adding the sport, but with one big caveat — funding.

“We are excited to share the results of our feasibility study and continue advancing our efforts to bring Division I hockey to Champaign-Urbana,” said Illinois Director of Athletics Josh Whitman. “This is one of our most ambitious and potentially impactful projects in recent memory.”

One of the biggest issues would be getting a new arena off the ground for this type of program. In fact, it was the specific mention of Whitman in his statement about the feasibility study.

“Adding Division I hockey and building the new arena it would require would be transformative for the sport of hockey in the state of Illinois and for our university, our athletic program, and, importantly, for the Champaign-Urbana communities,” said Whitman. “We are grateful for the partnerships we have developed with the Chicago Blackhawks, the National Hockey League, and College Hockey, Inc., all of which have become true champions for this cause. We look forward to engaging with more people from across the state to generate the support necessary to make this project a reality.”

As for the realistic expectations on the funding side, Whitman and his department have done a great job of securing funding for improvements to the overall athlete experience already. Funding is strong for the $79 million project for the football performance center, announcing a $1 million donation just three days ago.

If anyone can get the funding needed to get the project off the ground, it is Whitman. Luckily, just like Penn State had a huge hockey-loving alumnus to fund its program, the Illini also have that potential in its alumni base.

Everything else seems to be in place for success of this project should they want to go forward. There’s plenty of in-state hockey participation, a lack of D1 hockey in the state and tradition with the sport at the university as we speak. That tradition may not be known outside the campus much though.

Club hockey is something taken very seriously at the University of Illinois and there’s a tradition of success for the program. The Illini have won two ACHA national championships since the formation of the organization in 1991 and is one of the perennial powers.

It’s a good building block for an upstart program to work from.

That building block was very important to the last Big Ten team to add varsity hockey to the mix — Penn State. It had a strong base to add scholarship players to thanks to its quality club level of hockey and stabilized the building of the program in the beginning.

Illinois 2017-18 club team sits at 28-9-0-2 as they head in to the national tournament following a second-round conference tournament exit at the hands of Lindenwood University late in February.

The Illini earned a No. 5 seed in the national tournament, and will take on No. 12 seed Jamestown in the 2nd round of the tournament this weekend.

It’s safe to say that the stars seem to be aligning that another Big Ten institution is smartly going to add hockey to its athletic offerings. What will be most interesting is to see if it will be just the men’s side or will the Illini also look to offer women’s hockey as well.

Let’s hope this recommendation is taken seriously, because Illinois is ripe to make an impact on the college hockey landscape and it would be a huge boost to the sport within the Big Ten ranks.

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Illini Basketball

Mark Smith’s one-and-done highlights long road ahead for Illini basketball

Mark Smith’s impending transfer highlights need for Illini to not rest on one big recruit as Underwood hopes to rebuild program.

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On Monday, the Fighting Illini’s coveted-2017-recruit turned regressing-freshman, Mark Smith, announced he would be leaving the program. The school has not put any restrictions on his release, but absent an unexpected waiver from the NCAA, he will have to sit out the 2018-19 season.

While disappointing, the news should not be a shocker to Illini faithful as last year’s Mr. Basketball in Illinois had seen a diminishing role starting in conference play back in December, with production only briefly resurfacing prior to the resumption of B1G play in January. Smith had not cracked double-digits in scoring since this Illini season’s lone moment of glory versus Mizzou.

In hindsight, it’s perhaps a blessing that Smith didn’t heat up even briefly in conference play, since his departure is only disrupting momentum fans wish Brad Underwood had started. Smith was considered a significant get for the first year coach. They lost Jeremiah Tilmon to Mizzou while ridding themselves of John Groce’s next-next-next-4-out monotony, but had at least snagged Smith and Trent Frazier, with even more highly regarded Ayo Dosunmu waiting in the wings.

As has been the rule rather than the exception for the last 10-plus years of Illini revenue sports, the plan did not go as hoped.

What’s past is past, and if Brad Underwood is to right the ship in Champaign, as many non-delusional people think he more likely-than-not will, Smith cannot come to be known as “the one that got away” in years three, four and beyond of Underwood’s tenure.

The lesson is easy to identify – don’t assume any one specific recruit will pan out, instead load up on every scrap of talent the trail will yield. Putting this lesson into practice is the hard part, only made more difficult by the fact that blue chips stay with a program for shorter, often 1-year, periods, than the last time the Illini were contending in the B1G.

Illinois’s glory years are too distant for direct memory with recruits, but the facilities, competition, and in-state talent make B1G contention a reasonable long-term benchmark.

While not a lot is leaving the Illini (beyond Smith, just Mark Alstork) so far, the next few months could have major ramifications on the trajectory of the Underwood-rebuild.

Retention of Leron Black is priority number one. He made significant development as a scorer, and was the only bright spot beside Trent Frazier on a team that went 4-14 in conference. If Black senses another season theme of “development”, testing the grad transfer market could be the prudent play for the fifth-year senior still seeking an NCAA Tournament appearance.

Whether or not Black goes, the transfer market does both giveth and taketh away, and the former is now more important than expected. Getting a skilled big to play the 4 or 5 is the only way Underwood can hope to spin next year as one with legitimate B1G credibility and tourney expectations. Let Smith be the exception, Trent and Ayo the rule.

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