▪ Take 1: Some University of Illinois fans and media believe basketball coach John Groce has done enough to merit a return next season. Others aren’t so sure and hope Illini Athletics Director Josh Whitman will make a change, as he did with hiring Lovie Smith to guide the football program.
My Take: Some feel a talented incoming recruiting class that includes East St. Louis center Jeremiah Tilmon and Belleville East guard Javon Pickett might be enough to save Groce’s job. I’m not so sure. Groce has been unable to land elite-level recruits from the Chicago recruiting hotbed, most notably Jabari Parker, Jahlil Okafor and Jalen Brunson, among others. Unless they rally at the Big Ten Tournament this week behind Belleville East grad Malcolm Hill, the Illini (18-13 overall, 8-10 in the Big Ten) are in danger of missing out on their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. Another NIT appearance won’t excite an already disgruntled fan base, either, especially after that ghastly finish Saturday in the loss to last-place Rutgers. Groce is 37-53 in the Big Ten and his teams have never finished higher than seventh in the league race. Missouri has a coaching vacancy and Tiger fans are already clamoring for former East St. Louis Lincoln star and Cal coach Cuonzo Martin. If Groce is replaced, expect Martin to jump near the top of the list.
▪ Take 2: March Madness affects plenty of Illinois communities each year, but Okawville’s first state tournament trip in 30 years has created an epidemic of hoops hysteria.
My Take: It’s hard to talk about Okawville without mentioning basketball. The small, mostly rural community in Washington County has been churning out talented basketball players and teams for decades and this season is no different. Coaching legend Rich Herrin (95-17 in four years) coached Dave Luechtefeld, another coaching legend (738 wins, 348 losses) who took the last Rockets’ team to the state tournament 30 years ago. Luechtefeld coached current Okawville coach Jon Kraus, continuing a legacy of success. Want more symmetry? This season, Rockets star Noah Frederking broke the all-time Okawville scoring record set by Luechtefeld that had stood since 1958. The love affair with hoops continues and Peoria’s Carver Arena will be full of Okawville orange and blue this weekend.
▪ Take 3: The Blues’ roller-coaster ride toward what they hope is an NHL playoff berth has been on an upswing of late. Can the Blues get it done?
My Take: The Blues’ last 13 games include a six-game winning streak and a five-game losing streak, followed by back-to-back wins. That’s being consistently inconsistent, but led by goalie Jake Allen they are showing signs of life. An impressive 2-1 road win Tuesday against Central Division leader Minnesota put the Blues within three points of third-place Nashville and three points ahead of Los Angeles in the Western Conference wild card playoff race. Allen’s turnaround has mirrored that of the team, which has a 1.79 goals-against average and .940 save percentage since Mike Yeo replaced former coach Ken Hitchcock. Where the Blues need more help is on offense, where only three players — Vladimir Tarasenko (29 goals), Patrik Berglund (18) and Paul Stastny (17) — have more than 15 goals. A playoff push must include more scoring from the top offensive sources.
▪ Take 4: Cardinals starter Adam Wainwright says he has rediscovered the grip on his once-deadly curveball and is mixing in more and more change-ups.
My Take: A healthy and effective Wainwright could go a long way toward helping the Cardinals take a run at the playoffs. It seems like just yesterday that “Waino” was recording the final out for the Cards’ 2006 World Series title. Now the 6-foot-7 right-hander is 35 and tries to find positives in rediscovering the grip on his curve ball and the ability to mix in effective change-ups with his other deliveries. Careers fly by. If healthy, Wainwright should project better than his 13-9 record and 4.62 ERA from 2016. He is an unquestioned team leader and valuable role model for pitchers like Carlos Martinez and others.
▪ Take 5 (the pop culture take): Anything memorable from the world of Saturday morning cartoons?
My Take: If you get a chance, check out some old clips of the once-popular Hanna-Barbera cartoon series Jonny Quest (26 episodes from 1964-65). Besides having perhaps the coolest cartoon theme song of all time, the show offered viewers a little bit of everything. Dr. Benton Quest was a research scientist traveling the globe with sidekick and body guard Race Bannon to thwart evil wherever it lurked, from rogue mummies in Egypt to Nazi war criminals, lizard men and the evil Dr. Zin. Jonny Quest had a big mop of blond hair, an apparent adopted step-brother from India named Hadji and a feisty little white dog named Bandit. What’s not to like?