Illinois Public Media News
Butler coach Brad Stevens loves an underdog, whether it's his team back in the Final Four or Connecticut making an unprecedented five-games-in-five-nights run through the Big East tournament.
A Big East team as an underdog? The coach at tiny Butler cheering for big, bad UConn?
Welcome to the bizarro world of college basketball in 2011 - a sport where not only is anything possible, but where nothing quite makes sense. A sport in which the story of a small school from a small conference making a run to a title is no more rare than that of the late-season magic conjured by a power program with one of the nation's best players.
Butler and Connecticut will meet Monday in the national title game - the eighth-seeded Bulldogs trying to finish the deal after coming oh-so-close last season and the third-seeded Huskies (31-9), led by Kemba Walker, talking about shocking the world with their 11th straight victory after a regular season that foreshadowed none of this.
"We were all rooting for UConn because it was a great story," Stevens said, "a lot of fun to follow."
As is Butler, the team from a 4,500-student campus in Indianapolis that practices at Hinkle Fieldhouse, used as the backdrop for the classic movie "Hoosiers" - the based-on-reality melodrama in which tiny Hickory High stares down the biggest schools in Indiana and wins the state championship. On its second try.
What seemed impossible in that movie is becoming more the norm, at least in the college game. Last season, Butler (28-9) came one desperation heave from toppling Duke to become the first true mid-major to win the championship. This season, Butler wasn't even the biggest longshot at the Final Four. That was VCU, an 11th seed that fell to the Bulldogs in Saturday's semifinal.
As recently as 2008, the NCAA tournament landed all four No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. This year, there wasn't a single 1 or 2 for the first time in the 33-year history of seeding.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun said this has been the natural progression since the NCAA started limiting scholarships and new NBA rules triggered a flood of players who would come to college for one year, then declare for the draft.
"It's as close to parity as there can be," Calhoun said. "It certainly can occur in a tournament a lot more than it could playing a Saturday night, then Big Monday. It's just the nature of things. ... The one-and-done thing, walking the tightrope is a hard thing, a very difficult thing."
If anyone can say they've mastered it this season, it's UConn. Led by Walker, the junior guard on the verge of becoming the best player to ever put on a Huskies uniform, Connecticut won five games in five nights against Big East competition to win the postseason tournament.
A remarkable accomplishment in any conference, but especially the Big East - the 16-team behemoth that placed a record 11 teams in the tournament this year. Maybe because of the grueling nature of its regular season, the Big East wore down and had a terrible showing, only moving two teams into the second weekend.
But Connecticut is still standing, a testament to Walker's playmaking ability (he's averaging 25.5 points during this 10-game winning streak) and Calhoun's ability to adjust on the fly to the fatigue that has predictably set in.
"Our code has been very simple: 'The hell with it, let's just go play basketball,'" Calhoun said. "Well, we wouldn't be doing all the things we did last night defensively to Kentucky if we just kind of rolled the thing out there. We worked very hard on it. But we worked on it in a different way."
Connecticut advanced to the final by holding the Wildcats to 33.9 percent shooting in a 56-55 victory Saturday night.
Butler, meanwhile, only needed two wins in four nights to capture the tournament title in the less-heralded Horizon League. Still, the Bulldogs are on a 14-game winning streak that began after losing their third straight back on Feb. 3. At that point, this was a team that had no guarantees it would even make the NCAA field. It looked nothing like the one that captured hearts as it made its run through last year's tournament.
In the final last April, Butler trailed Duke 61-59 with 3.6 seconds left when Gordon Hayward (now playing for Utah in the NBA) grabbed the rebound off an intentionally missed free throw, dribbled four times to the halfcourt line and launched a shot at the buzzer. It hit the backboard, the inside of the rim and bounced out. It could have been the greatest finish ever in sports. It wound up as something less, though Stevens insists he walked away that night feeling like a winner.
"Our guys played as well as they could have," Stevens said. "They represented themselves in an unbelievable manner throughout that whole game. That might be the reason why we had parades, too, even though we lost. It was remarkable the way people treated us even though we lost."
One win away from the pinnacle once again, the Bulldogs are talking about finishing the deal this time. They haven't turned their backs on the heart-tugging story lines that help define them, but they don't fall back on them, either.
"There are some connections to us and 'Hoosiers.' I understand that, and that's nice if people want to make those connections," senior forward Matt Howard said.
Calhoun, trying to become only the fifth coach to win three NCAA titles, says he appreciates Butler as much as the next guy. He sees the slow, steady improvement of mid-majors such as Butler and figures there will be more tournaments like this one and more nights like Monday - where the small school and the big school are on even footing.
Maybe one of those days, the little guy will win it all.
"I think it's good for college basketball," Calhoun said. "I think if it starts around 2012, 2013, it would be a wonderful thing."
(AP Photo/Tony Dejak)
A group hoping to open a shared-use kitchen and business incubator in Champaign-Urbana is making a specific pitch to the Hispanic community.
The Flatlander Community Kitchen project is holding a meeting aimed at Spanish-speaking residents Wednesday, April 6, at the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park in Champaign.
Flatlander volunteer Laura Huth says the meeting is part of their effort to reach potential entrepreneurs who would benefit from access to a certified commercial kitchen.
"One of our volunteers happens to be a fluent Spanish-speaker -- she's bilingual -- and she stepped up and said, 'I'd like to help and this is what I can do," Huth said. "And so we decided to start with the Spanish-speaking session, and then we're going to add on other different language sessions moving forward."
Huth says they are publicizing the meeting through flyers and word-of-mouth. She says owners of two area Mexican restaurant chains -- El Toro and La Bamba -- have shown a lot of interest in the project.
"They see this as a huge opportunity for their ethnic community to take some of their business ideas that currently aren't really being realized, and being able to provide job opportunities for people in the community," Huth said.
The Flatlander Community Kitchen is the brainchild of local chocolate-maker Daniel Schreiber, who died last year. The project is still in the planning stages, as its organizers seek out backers, potential users, and a site for the kitchen. Huth says they hope the opening of a non-profit community kitchen will encourage more locally-produced goods in Champaign-Urbana and create jobs.
Flatlander's Spanish-language meeting is set to begin at 7:00 Wednesday night, in the Schoolhouse facility just inside the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park, 1600 North Market Street in Champaign.
Danville Police are searching for a 15-year old male they suspect in the shooting of an 18 year old at the Fair Oaks public housing complex Sunday.
Police officials say officers responded to shots fired in the 900 block of Wakeley shortly before 5 PM Sunday. By the time they arrived, the shooting victim had been taken to Provena United Samaritans Medical Center --- he was later transferred to another hospital in Champaign-Urbana.
Public Safety Director Larry Thomason says both the shooter and his victim knew each other, and apparently had an ongoing argument. The shooting came three days after another Danville teen-ager was shot on Washington Street. Police arrested an 18 year old man in connection with that case.
Anyone with information the shooting is asked to contact Danville Police, or call Vermilion County Crime Stoppers anonymously at 217-446-TIPS.
Butler has stopped a series of college basketball Goliaths on its way to consecutive national championship games, and Monday night will pose a unique challenge: stopping a superstar.
Connecticut's Kemba Walker has carried the Huskies to the finals on a run reminiscent of Danny Manning's performance at Kansas 23 years ago.
Butler's scouting report on the versatile Walker is long and detailed. Unlike Kentucky, which tried to slow Walker down with defensive stopper DeAndre Liggins, the Bulldogs will let a handful of players take a shot at keeping him in check.
Coach Brad Stevens says his team respects Walker but can't focus too much attention on him because it could leave room for other UConn players to get loose.
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says Libyan rebels should be given weapons to help them quickly overthrow Moammar Gadhafi's regime.
The Illinois Republican says furnishing weapons will help end the Libyan war and limit costs for the United States and its allies.
Kirk told reporters Friday that conflicts should be rough and violent if that's what it takes to achieve a quick victory.
"When you're in a conflict, make it rough make it violent, so that it is over quickly," said the Senator. "If we win this war as fast as possible it will cost less. It will create less turmoil in the Arab world and it will calm international economies."
NATO and some nations say an arms embargo rules out providing weapons to the Libyan rebels. But President Barack Obama's administration suggests arming them might be an option.
Kirk also says the United States should recognize the rebels as the legitimate representatives of Libya's people, as France has done.
Butler University officials hope the recent success of the school's men's basketball team can help attract donations for a $25 million restoration of the Bulldogs' home arena.
The Indianapolis Business Journal reports that Hinkle Fieldhouse's restoration will begin in the summer of 2012.
About $4.8 million has been raised for the project. Butler's vice president for university advancement, Mark Helmus, says he's "certainly pleased'' the Bulldogs' repeat Final Four trip coincides with the school's plans to expand its fundraising appeal to the general public over the coming months.
The Hinkle restoration will include adding more chair-type seats to the 1928 basketball arena. Those chairs will reduce Hinkle's seating capacity from about 10,000 to about 8,500. But Helmus says "most people don't want season tickets if they're not in chairs.
A quick look at the state's overall economy shows improvement from the recession, but at a painstakingly slow pace.
The author of the monthly University of Illinois Flash Index says March marked the 11th consecutive month of improvement at 96.3, up two-tenths of a point from a month earlier. Anything below 100 still indicates a decline.
U of I economist Fred Giertz cites a January unemployment rate, both statewide and nationally - of 8.9 percent, as well as job growth in the private sector. But Giertz says Illinois is still a long way from where it wants to be, noting the difference between the current recession and those of recent years.
"It was also accompanied by a financial panic," he said. "A lot of people have noted those kind of situations, which occur very rarely, are also much more difficult to recover from. So we're not going to bounce back the way we did in 2001 or 1990."
The flash index is made up of individual and corporate tax receipts through the end of the month. Giertz says the tax hike passed by the legislature in January presented a challenge for him. He says those numbers had to be adjusted to reflect the overall economy, and not solely the higher rates. "So the fact is once you do that, the growth is a whole lot slower than you might think by just looking at the numbers themselves." said Giertz.
Because corporations file tax returns at different times, Giertz says it will take some time before the impact of the tax increase is fully realized.
Gov. Pat Quinn is getting ready to propose changes to the workers' compensation system in Illinois.
The Chicago Democrat on Friday said both the law and the Workers' Compensation Commission must be revamped. He says changes to the law would make the system more affordable for businesses while remaining fair to workers.
Quinn's comments come amid a federal investigation into possible workers' compensation abuses at state agencies and in the actions of arbitrators. The Associated Press has obtained five subpoenas looking for claims data.
Quinn says he's talking to lawmakers and wants Republicans and Democrats to work together on an overhaul.
Since shocking educators and parents last month by calling for a complete overhaul of Illinois school districts' sizes and boundaries, Gov. Pat Quinn has yet to provide detailed proposal, draft legislation or build support in the General Assembly.
Meanwhile, a State Board of Education report on school consolidation raises questions about Quinn's approach, and key lawmakers reject the idea that the Chicago Democrat even has a plan they should consider.
"The word 'plan' is really being kind," said Rep. Roger Eddy, R-Hutsonville. "It's a concept, I think, at this point."
House Speaker Michael Madigan, D-Chicago, said Wednesday he doesn't plan legislative action on the consolidation proposal, but declined to say why.
Quinn has assigned the issue to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon, whose office says the proposal is simply a starting point for discussions.
Quinn's plan includes cutting Illinois' 868 school districts to about 300, redrawing boundaries so that each district -- aside from Chicago -- contains about 30,000 people and cutting administrative jobs. Quinn estimates that would save at least $100 million. But that figure has been disputed by critics who say it's based on the state's 300 highest-paid superintendents even though many merged districts would be downstate, where salaries are typically lower and current law allows teacher salaries to rise when districts merge.
A Board of Education report compiled last fall cautions that cutting jobs could be difficult if new merged districts are too large. It also noted that a state panel in 2002 said high schools should have enrollments of at least 250 and elementary districts at least 625 students. Using that guideline would mean eliminating 359 districts, not the 568 that Quinn has suggested.
The report found no clear correlation between district size and student performance. Small districts did better than large ones by some measures and did worse by others.
Education officials and legislators said the state should encourage districts to merge rather than requiring it.
Illinois has provided $155.6 million in merger incentives since 1986, eliminating 139 districts, the Board of Education said. That means the state paid, on average, $1.1 million for each district it cut.
Quinn's critics say the relatively small number of districts accepting the state incentives means there must be strong local reasons not to merge.
"If it was smart for them to do this, people would already be doing this," said Brent Clark, executive director of Illinois Association of School Administrators.
Kelly Kraft, Quinn's budget spokeswoman, said incentives have not spurred enough consolidation. She said Quinn's proposal is the best way to realize significant savings.
Critics contend that meeting Quinn's goal of 30,000 people would produce some huge downstate districts sprawling across six counties. And despite Quinn's claim that he wants to merge districts but not schools, many people said the real benefit would come from closing school buildings.
Richard Towers, superintendent in Christopher, said his district wants to merge with nearby the Zeigler-Royalton district, saving about $220,000 in administrative costs. But the way to help students, he said, would be building a single new high school.
"Keeping the status quo with two small high schools, I just don't know if the curriculum could be expanded to the extent that it would need to be," Towers said.
Critics note Quinn proposed a $95 million cut to school transportation, one year after slashing $140 million from the same program. Experts said schools that cut administrative costs would simply end up spending the money on buses.
Legislators and education advocates see little chance of Quinn's proposal being approved. They say Quinn sprang it on them without any preparation and has done little since then to build support or even share basic information.
"I have two lines in his budget address," Ben Schwarm, associate executive director for Illinois Association of School Boards, said of his knowledge about Quinn's plan.
Quinn said his proposal would focus resources on education instead of administration but remained careful to note that he is not advocating for schools to close.
"We don't need as many folks at the top level," Quinn told reporters earlier this month. "We need folks on the front line in the teaching, imparting knowledge."
Kathryn Phillips, spokeswoman for the lieutenant governor, said Quinn's proposal is a "starting point and is one of many different ideas that we've hear. It's too early to tell which proposals are best or to assign any values to the proposals."
She said Simon, who declined to speak with The Associated Press, is discussing consolidation with legislators, school administrators, teachers and more.
Illinois has the third-most school districts in the nation, behind Texas and California, which have much larger populations. Nearly 250 superintendents are paid more than Quinn, who earns $177,400 annually. Phillips said about one-quarter of districts consist of one school that could be merged with larger districts.
Rep. Linda Chapa LaVia, head of the House education committee, said local concerns about school pride and community would be difficult to overcome in a state-mandated consolidation plan.
"We have to cross a huge hurdle called local control," said Chapa LaVia, D-Aurora. "In the sand is drawn, 'This is our local control. Don't come out and bother us.' So I think we need to get a new idea.
Illinois says basketball coach Bruce Weber will remain coach of the Illini after reports he was a strong candidate to fill the vacant job at Oklahoma.
Weber said Thursday in a statement that he'd received calls from other unspecified schools but doesn't intend to leave.
The Transcript in Norman, Okla., linked Weber to the vacant Sooners job on Wednesday. Oklahoma fired Jeff Capel earlier this month.
Some Illinois fans have called for Weber to be fired after Illinois' 20-14 finish. The Illini opened the season in the Top 25 with talk about a potential Big Ten title but finished unranked and in fourth place.
Adding to the uncertainty in Champaign is 65-year-old athletics director Ron Guenther's situation. His contract ends this summer and he hasn't ruled out retiring.
(AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki, File)
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