... because Zook's football team is off to a slow start again
ST. LOUIS – The first half was encouraging, but it is hard to take solace from yet another Illinois loss to Missouri.
Yes, the Illini came out with a roar Saturday, led into the fourth quarter and beat the 12-point spread in a 23-13 outcome.
But when the chips were down in the second half, Illinois was nowhere to be seen. In those devastating 30 minutes, Missouri prevailed 20-0, stuffed the UI running game, intercepted two passes while limiting Nathan Scheelhaase to 4 of 15 in the air, and passed the revamped UI secondary dizzy with Blaine Gabbert bullets.
Missouri had better line play but forget that. Coach Gary Pinkel created what amounted to a touch football attack with Gabbert usually alone in the backfield – that's called "empty" – and five receivers spread across the field. He threw so quickly that the defensive rush didn't matter. He was sacked once while throwing 48 times – yes, the Illini caught him once in 49 dropbacks – and he completed 34 passes with a 71 percent mark and no interceptions. He was so efficient that there wasn't anything close to an interception by Illinois.
Missouri, meanwhile, outfought UI receivers on the jump balls, picked off three Scheelhaase throws and smacked him hard when he ran, forcing him to fumble once. Except for Mikel Leshoure's breakaways of 42 and 26 yards, the UI offense sputtered and managed to produce four first downs after the break.
An honest viewer could only conclude that, if these teams played again next Saturday, it wouldn't be this close.
"That's not an easy scheme to deal with," UI defensive coordinator Vic Koenning said. "They only used quads (four receivers on one side) 17 times last year, but they used it a lot today. Gabbert is hard to pressure because he's so good at getting the ball off and, when he's in the shotgun like that, they're already in five-step routes. It's like guys who shoot free throws all the time. They get better at it. Missouri throws the ball and they've become very good at it."
Those of us involved in sports in a college town tend to overlook the gang warfare that is destroying the inner city of Chicago.
But we receive grim reminders from time to time, like when 1984 All-Stater Ben Wilson suffered a fatal gunshot wound as he walked along the sidewalk. And it hit home again last weekend when Darrell McKinney, brother of Illini basketball recruit Mycheal Henry, was killed by an errant bullet at Humboldt Park. McKinney was a sophomore at Orr High School, where Henry is the basketball star.
Imagine how anxious Henry must be to escape that Wild West neighborhood. Shootings are so routine that they are almost commonplace.
Columnist George Will tossed out race-related numbers last Sunday that are staggering and, worse yet, not likely to improve. Will cited figures that show, in the early 2000s, more than one-third of all young black non-college men are incarcerated ... and more than 60 percent of black high school dropouts born since the mid-1960s go to prison.
How can you operate a community in the face of those numbers? How do you deal with tens of thousands of gang members? And how can you expect students from those sub-standard high schools to compete at the UI, where the average ACT of an incoming freshman is 28.5?
The UI Assembly Hall became one of the world's largest edge-supported structures in 1963 at a cost of $8.7 million.
The cost of construction is going up. What once was projected as a $120 million renovation is starting to look like a $200 million operation, if athletic director Ron Guenther can locate the funds. Guenther said Tuesday that presentations have been made to corporations for naming rights in the range of $60 million to $65 million, and that would merely be one-third of what is needed.
That leaves another $120 million to $130 million to drum up, if they're going to lower the floor (doubling the number of students at courtside), build premium seating, put in air conditioning, add restrooms and concessions, create a grand entryway and do whatever else is on the master plan. Revenue from suites won't approach similar income from Memorial Stadium, so Guenther surely will need multiple contributors with major amounts.
Can this be accomplished in these inclement economic times?
Hold your horses
In case you forgot, Tubby Smith's 2010 Minnesota Gophers earned an NCAA tournament slot late in the season by defeating Illinois at home 62-60, edging Michigan State 72-67 in the Big Ten tournament and, the next day, destroying Purdue 69-42. No, that's not a typo. The Gophers led 37-11 at halftime in Indianapolis and won by 27.
They went. Illinois accepted an NIT bid.
This is reported to prevent Illini Nation from jumping out of their pantaloons over ESPN.com writer Doug Gottlieb's prediction that Illinois will win the Big Ten title – "You heard it here first," he wrote – in a conference that the same publication says "could be the best in the country."
The early rankings probably will show Michigan State and Purdue in the Top 5, with Ohio State and Illinois in the next grouping, and the overlooked duo of Wisconsin and Minnesota deserving better than they get.
No one should be excited about preseason selections in the Big Ten this year. Already, Michigan State has lost one guard and had another arrested. A sudden injury, like the ones that sidelined Michigan State's Kalin Lucas and Purdue's Robbie Hummel, could change everything.
Tom Izzo has plenty of wings to replace Chris Allen (transferred to Iowa State) and, while Raymar Morgan will be missed, Izzo has a five-star freshman, 6-foot-10 Adreian Payne, joining wide bodies Delvon Roe and Draymond Green. As for Purdue, nobody has a Big Three better than its, and if you don't know who they are, you aren't reading this now.
But it is Minnesota that intrigues me. There the Gophers were last March and early April, operating without guard Al Nolen and 6-8 Trevor Mbakwe (both back this year), and some viewers treated their triumphs like flukes. Illinois should have handled them. Sure! Michigan State let them slip away. Really? Purdue forgot to show up. Always an excuse.
All I know is this: The Gophers have a national championship coach, positive vibes about making the NCAA tournament last season, a difficult place for opponents to play, a speedy point guard in Nolen, plenty of wing shooters (Blake Hoffarber sank 85 of 182 threes) and experienced size in alternating centers Ralph Sampson (6-11) and Colton Iverson (6-10).
So you can celebrate ESPN.com's projections (look out, it could be the Sports Illustrated jinx) if it makes you feel good. For me, the Big Ten has the look of a five-team pileup with Wisconsin, underrated as usual, on the edge, and Northwestern striving to show that the summer departure of Kevin Coble, the Wildcats' best player for three years, won't again leave the Wildcats short of the NCAA tournament.
This projects as a calvary charge that is much too close to call.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Why I feel YOUNG ...
I can't sing. I never could, really, although I tried on some of those old three-chord country songs until I couldn't stand the sound of either my voice or my marginal guitar playing.
But Mike Howie, who recognizes a good joke when he sees one, has me back on the stage tonight – my apologies to Kathy Harden – for my "one trick pony" offering at Mike & Molly's, and with (1) enough background instruments to drown out my mistakes and (2) daughter Lori alongside to reach the high notes.
This Prairie Jam has been going on for more than 20 years, dating to that long-ago evening when we kept going up, one key at a time, on "Delta Dawn" until our screeching scared the squirrels.
Anyway, here we are all these years later and for all the embarrassment ... during those three to four minutes, it makes me feel young.
Why I feel OLD ...
Warren Smith must be rolling over in his grave as Urbana, beaten Friday by Champaign Central in overtime, shows four wins in the last four-plus football seasons.
The fiery Smith made the Tigers a force in prep football from 1953 to 1979, fielding six 7-2 teams, four 8-1 teams and one 9-0 champion. Smitty and Champaign's Tom Stewart made the crosstown rivalry as meaningful at the prep level as Michigan-Ohio State at the college level.
Both were undefeated in 1966 when the Maroons won 40-0, and I got blasted by Smitty for my coverage of it. It was the Maroons' only win against powerhouse Urbana teams between 1964 and 1968, the Tigers going 25-2 in three of those seasons. Smith brought his record in the Twin City series to 14 wins, 16 losses by prevailing in the last three, 14-13 in OT, 14-6 and 13-12.
It's hard to believe 31 years have passed since Smith and Stewart went at it, and it's doesn't make me feel any younger to know Smitty is gone and Stewart is battling physical demons.