Thursday, November 22, 2012

Maui Wowie

John Groce
AP Photo/Eugene Tanner

Well Illini fans, John Groce and his boys from Champaign-Urbana gave everyone something to be thankful for this Holiday season. 

An Illini men's basketball team that puts a great product on the court.  And boy did they ever deliver!

In what turned out to be a tremendous Hawaiian vacation for these Illini ballers it has also given credence to the hiring of John Groce as head basketball coach.

The Illini, lead by Maui Invitational Tournament MVP Brandon Paul (pictured right), they went out to prove something to everyone that the basketball culture in Orange Krush country is going to be different. 

They started the week with a heart stopping win against Hawaii that D.J. Richardson saved with a three pointer in the corner at the buzzer in overtime.  They were down in that game by 16 and fought back never giving up and showing great toughness and grit. 

That win and in that fashion almost seemed to jump start their run going forward in Maui. 

They just blew doors off of the Univeristy of Spoiled Children (USC) with deft shooting and attacking defense.  They really never knew what hit them. 

The were then given a gift in playing the upset minded hosts, Chaminade, who took out a very young Texas squad the night before.  This was again no match for this changed Illini team as they again never trailed going away. 

The win earned them a chance at a championship and to get it would have to battle one of the best coached teams in the country.  Not to mention beat one of John Groce's best friends in Butler's Brad Stevens. 

The up tempo offense style and ball hawking defense smothered the majority of the Bulldogs and again the Illini with a balanced scoring attack never trailed and were crowned champion.

I am very proud to be an Illini fan today and will tell you I think the Illini have great things to come under John Groce.  Having been a season ticket holder with Illini men's basketball for many years I have seen the Illini in many systems and coaching styles. 

After watching this tournament run I have to believe prospective recruits are going to want to play in this system.  He lets his players play and if you are open to shoot without consequence.  They play in a normal rhythm and don't have that voice in the back of their head saying no. 

This was really the case the last few years under Bruce Weber.  His teams would hold the ball for 30 seconds of the shot clock and then scramble at times to get a decent shot off.  He would bark at them and it was not being received well by the Illini players. 

Groce is just the opposite.  He plays a controlled yet free brand of basketball.  It reminds me of when you are on the playground or in the gym playing pickup games and when you want to take a shot you do it without a feeling of being reprimanded. 

Players on this team, like Paul, Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Tyler Griffey, Joseph Bertrand, Myke Henry, all have a different look about them.  They look as if a load has been lifted from their shoulders and they can be themselves and play basketball.

There can't be enough said about a stress free feeling when you are playing a sport and wanting to do so at a high level.  These guys seem to have an extra pep in their step.  Tracy Abrams, (13), has grown leaps in one year and is a leader on this team.  I can't wait to see more from this group. 

The Illini seem tougher, more aggressive, and have the horses to run this style.

They do need to improve in several areas so I am not drinking the Kool-Aid just yet. 

Teams that live by the three also die by the three.  They will need to develop some semblance of an inside game and definitely rebound better as those shots won't fall like they were raining down in Maui all year long.  They will also need to work on driving to the basket more too to open up the outside for their great shooters. 

It will also be a change when league play begins as the Big Ten is loaded this season with quality teams top to bottom like top ranked Indiana and #4 Michigan.  It will be a heavyweight fight night in and night out during the conference season.   

I hope Brad Steven's is right when he was quoted after their loss last night as saying, "Anyone who thinks that’s a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team, I would argue with that.”

It will take continued improvement and hard work and also a little luck to build on what they have started.

The foundation has been laid for what could be a very surprising and successful season in Illini land.

But as John Groce said after they were crowned Maui champions, "We’re excited. We’re not done. I think it’s a tremendous start for our basketball program. But we can still get better."

The talent is there on this team and with the tremendous inroads Groce has made with recruiting in such a small window of time the arrow is pointing skyward again.  He is selling this program and his style of play and it is paying off with a very good recruiting class as well, Rivals ranks them in at #10.  He has signed kids from Chicago like Jaylon Tate (blue) and Kendrick Nunn (orange) out of powerhouse Simeon.  He has grabbed a player out of Ohio in big man Maverick Morgan and now the East Coast with late bloomer Austin Colbert.    

He is building relationships across the country.  He wants to be a national brand.

He may not have won the popular vote when the Illini were searching for their new head basketball coach, but he has shown to this point that popular opinion can be wrong.

And in my mind I am glad they were.

Get out those sunglasses Illini fans because their future looks bright!     

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Father Knows Best


This week it was brought up that Charles "Peanut" Tillman, of the Chicago Bears, and his wife were expecting another addition to their family of a son and two daughters. 

This is a beautiful miracle that god willing happens to people all over the world every single day. 

The significance of Tillman's expectancy is that he was thinking the baby could be coming this weekend during the Chicago Bears mega tilt with the 7-1 Houston Texans.

He and his wife have decided if she were to go into labor to miss the football game and be with his her for the birth of his newest little one.

Now this wouldn't be much of a story as people miss work for the birth of there children everyday.  The problem is some people in the media think the star cornerback and potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate should play the game no matter what.

They feel with the season being only 16 games long that missing puts a burden upon the team and could jeopardize their playoff position seeding wise.  It has also been brought up that it is different in football than in basketball or baseball as they have more games and it is less likely missing one game will make that much difference.

I challenge those who feel that way in seeing how many times the baseball season has come down to 1 game separating the leader in a division from the second place team.  They really are the same in the grand scheme of things.  Tillman in this case sees a bigger picture. 
He doesn't owe anyone in society anything by being expected to play each game when it comes to the birth of their child.

You just aren't able to understand what it is like to be with your wife and family when another member of your family is just moments away from breathing air and life for the first time if you don't have children yourself.  The Sun Times spent the day with Peanut and his family, pictured right, and captured that feeling with his daughters smile.                                                   
And this doesn't count for those of your out there who call your pets your children...they aren't your children...they are animals. 

Tillman and his wife will be expecting their fourth child and each one is just as special as the last.  The difference for the Tillmans is the struggle they have gone through with their children.

His middle child, Tiana, was born with cardiomyopathy and was the recipient of a heart transplant in 2008.  Everyday he looks at this beautiful child it is a miracle.  It is this type of life altering event that shapes you as a human being.

Jackie, Tiana, and Charles courtesy

Peanut and his wife thank the lord each and everyday the time they have with their children and know that no one is guaranteed tomorrow.  There is nothing like hearing your child laugh or say, "I love you Daddy."

That is why you live everyday like it is your last. 

That is why you miss a football game for the birth of your child. 

Now, Bears fans everywhere want him to play on Sunday and help them potentially defeat the Texans.  Hell, as a fan I want him to play Sunday.  Especially with them leading Green Bay by two games in the division race.

We all love this game with a passion and at times act like sports is the end all and be all of existence. 

Now, as a father of two kids myself, I want him to miss Sunday's game and be with his family and wife during this amazing time in their lives. 

Life brings about many ups and downs and the roller coaster goes along and what is always constant in our lives is family.

Tillman was quoted saying, "At the end of the day, (family is) all you have. This game is important to me, but after what we went through with my middle child (Tiana), to me football will always be second or third in my life. That was a great lesson learned to teach me that when I'm done playing football my family will still always be there for me."  

That IS the lesson to be learned.  Family will be there when football is over and Peanut will be sitting around the fire with his kids, grand kids, and the dog on his lap spinning yarns about his Chicago Bears experiences.

That is a wonderful thing. 

Coach Lovie Smith, his teammates, and the organizations gets it.  They have created a "family" within the team and the locker room and is shows on the field.

They lead by example and no one does it better than Lovie.

Peanut and his Chicago Bears defensive teammates need eleven strong to make themselves successful. 

Without that bond you have trouble.  Now Peanut has said he expects to be there on Sunday as his wife will be expecting on Monday.   

Tillman and his wife though are building a bond with their family and setting a foundation for their kids future that will make them successful when they grown up.

Football is fun but family is forever!


Sunday, November 4, 2012


The NFL, and Roger Goodell, has been really cracking down recently on excessive force and the intent of contact by defensive players.  This has been a very debatable topic as to what defines excessive force and are hits purposely violent or just a regular football play. 

This past week, after the Chicago Bears played the Carolina Panthers, Bears Safety Chris Conte was involved in a bang-bang play at the goal line that at the time was given a personal foul for helmet to helmet contact. 

The penalty, I felt, was questionable as he was leaning in to hit the receiver and as the receiver made a move he grazed his helmet and then fully hit his shoulder pads.  The referee felt it warranted a personal foul and resulted in Carolina gaining an automatic first down. 

The Bears were able to overcome this issue and ultimately win the game with more classic "Monster of the Midway" defense. 

The game ended.  Monday came and went. Then an email from the league office came to Chris Conte.

You are fined $21,000 for the hit he landed against the Carolina Panthers.  He originally thought it was a joke and it really is a joke.  To think this is fineable.   

To most people in society who think that is nothing for a professional football player to have a fine of this magnitude then think of it this way. 

This fine was 78% of Chris Conte's salary for the week. 

He makes $27,000 per game.  He is not Brian Urlacher, left, who makes $468,750 per game.    

Now I know what you are thinking.  Oh, well he will just make it up next week.  Right?  It shouldn't matter.  This is the man's lively hood.  I know we would all like to bring in that kind of money in a weeks time but again is shouldn't matter. 

Now think that if you were working and your company felt you made a mistake and that they would take 78% of your salary for the week.  You wouldn't want anyone, let alone your company, take money out of your pocket and take food off your table.

The NFL powers that be are working like an organized crime syndicate. 

The NFL doesn't care if you are a bit player and make the league minimum or if you are the star of the show.  They have the same fines and system for everyone.  You still gotta come up with the dough no matter what.

It is just like in Goodfellas when Tommy partners up with Paulie.  He has to come up with payments no matter what.      

Business bad?  F--- you, pay me.
Oh, you had a fire?  F--- you, pay me.
Place got hit by lightning, huh?  F--- you, pay me.

This is what if feels like for the little guy and what the NFL offices are basically telling them.

Don't play much?  F--- you, pay me.
Don't make much? F--- you, pay me.
Might go bankrupt, huh? F--- you, pay me.

It may sound far fetched but it isn't far off.  I understand wanting the game to be safe and never want to see anyone get hurt, but they are really taking the football out of football.

It is a violent game and people tune in each and every week to see their team play a barbaric sport. 

I especially feel this way for the Chicago Bears as their defense is their best offense right now.  The game today, against the Titans, was a microcosm of their season to date.  They use their ability to dominate games physically and opportunistically with creating turnovers and scoring touchdowns.

Chris Conte is a lower man on the Totem Pole as far as the Bears defense is concerned.  They rely heavily on the play of veterans Brian Urlacher, Lance Briggs, and Peanut Tillman.  These three are playing their best football and are doing it with bone crunching success.

Tillman alone today had forced four fumbles and does so with pinpoint precision when literally punching the ball away from opposing running backs and receivers, right.  He has to be physical to do his job at the highest level.  

There is a slippery slope when you start to fine players for helmet to helmet contact then what if they start fining for horse collar tackles.  Or in Peanut's case, for punching at players while trying to stripe the ball from them.

The NFL has their agenda and will ultimately have the final say in what goes within their league.  The players must adapt to the changes being made and do their best when in the heat of the moment.

I guess players will have to use the "magic bullet" theory and when they are in mid air and flying toward another player they will need to change directions and alter their movement against the laws of physics.

This is a ridiculous notion and why I feel these fines are getting out of control.  The league office needs to pump their brakes when doling out fines and really hand them out if these are done deliberately.

They also need to adjust their fining processes with the scale for which the players are committing them.  If a player makes the league minimum and is found to have violated league policy or procedure when making a hit then fine them according to their own salary.

Have a set scale that is made out in increments according to a percentage of their salary.

78% of someones salary is way too excessive and seems almost more extreme than some of the hits the players are being fined for.

An equal playing field in this process will be much better for a league that thrives on parody.

I realize this isn't going away this season but if it isn't addressed in the off season it will be a travesty.

Because if they don't do something then the little guy who makes a teams roster full may have to take another job during the season.

They just may be forced to actually go get their shinebox!

Thursday, November 1, 2012


The 2012-13 NBA season is now under way with a select few teams with the realistic chance of hoisting the championship at seasons end. 

LeBron and company being the front runners for yet another title and one step closer to his ultimate goal.

8 championships. 

The Miami Heat are primed for another great year with one more season of the Big Three gelling and creating the chemistry they need to put together a potential dynasty.  I don't like to throw around the "D" word but with the talent the Heat have and the addition of Ray Allen as a dead eye shooter off the bench for them it is looking that way. 

LeBron will be every bit his usual self and always give you his ho-hum average game of about 30 pts, 8 rebounds, and 6 assists. 

LeBron, Wade, and Bosh will need to stay hungry as to not become complacent after winning last years title.  This shouldn't be a problem as their plan all along was to win multiple championships and become part of NBA history and lore.

LeBron wants to pass Michael Jordan, right, and looks like he will stop an nothing to get there.  

The way the Eastern Conference is set up this season there really shouldn't be a team they would fear in the playoffs.  

Their stiffest competition in the East will be from their arch rival Boston Celtics and the Indiana Pacers. 

Boston's veteran group of Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett will have each others back and won't let their legacy go quietly and the emergence of Rajon Rondo as their go-to player will put them in the discussion.

The Celtics have added some youth through the draft, Jared Sullinger being one, and having Ray Allen leave Boston only join the dark side will make their contests this season epic battles.

The Indiana Pacers were pesky outs in last years playoffs as they have a very balanced team with no real "name" player.  The one player who really makes them go is Danny Granger and if he can be healthy this year they should put together another fine run. 

The Heat don't have to worry about the Chicago Bulls as Derrick Rose won't be ready for any real game action any time soon after last season playoff knee injury.  The Bulls, under Coach Thibs, will again play enough stellar defense to get themselves into the playoffs. 

It is too bad the Bulls wouldn't just tank the season and hope for the draft ping pong ball gods to land in their favor, like the Spurs did the year they got Tim Duncan. 

Speaking of the Western Conference, their victims in the NBA Finals last year, the Oklahoma City Thunder just got a bit weaker after trading James Harden to the Houston Rockets.  They were able to get in return Kevin Martin, a scorer, and potential draft picks for long term gains but the short term could hurt them. 

They still have the leagues best scorer in Kevin Durant and score first point guard Russell Westbrook who are two of the best players the NBA has to offer, pictured right. 

They will still be a tough team to beat and my guess is Kevin Durant won't rest until he gets the Thunder back to the Finals to avenge their loss. 

The New ( but old) look L.A. Lakers will be an interesting team going forward this season.  The additions of Steve Nash and Dwight Howard will take time to get in a rhythm and figure out each of their tendencies.  It will ultimately solidify their ball handling and post play going forward.  They still have the always deadly Kobe Bryant who should have this team scoring plenty of points. 

The problem will be them giving up points.  

The Lakers are older and slower with the addition of Nash and Kobe will still Kobe but just a step too slow son a step too slow.  Their gonna run son but are they gonna go?

 Will have to see if Kobe and his new teammates will be winning any titles again.  

The San Antonio Spurs will again be well disciplined and well coached under Greg Papavich and with Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Kawhi Leonard they will be winning plenty of ball games.

They are crafty veterans and will be players again but their showing against OKC last year showed they may be on their farewell tour.  The experience of having won four NBA championships can only take you so far.  Like in Punch Out, pure athleticism and skill always proves out in the end. 

It is hard to see this season going any different unless OKC can replace Harden's contributions and if the Lakers can figure things out quicker than their predecessors when building a team this way.  Boston was able to win the title when Ray, Paul, and KG got together quickly and as it was said earlier LeBron got it done with Wade and Bosh last year after year number two. 

I definitely see a Re-Heat in Miami in 2013. 

LeBron and company had to win one in order to have two and we will see if they keep going to reach eight.