Illini hope to regain Chicago edge
December, 28, 2012
By Scott Powers | ESPNChicago.com
Chicago is important to the Illinois basketball program.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesLast year's loss to UNLV at the United Center was the beginning of a skid for Illinois that resulted in Bruce Weber getting fired.
For one, the city and its surrounding areas are full of basketball talent. A bulk of the state's top players and even some of the nation's elite ones come from Chicago. Recruiting there is vital to the program's health. Seven players on the current roster are from the Chicagoland area.
Secondly, Chicago is home to thousands of Illini alumni. As much as Northwestern wants to call itself Chicago's Big Ten team, Illinois' alumni trump the Wildcats and all of the other Big Ten schools in the area.
Those two reasons have brought the Illini to Chicago to host an annual game dating back to 1994. It's a way of attracting recruits and thanking their fans. And with 32 wins in 43 appearances when visiting Chicago, the Illini have often been successful in their mission.
Lately, though, the game hasn't exactly worked out that way. The Illini have been beaten in their three last trips to Chicago, and two of those defeats -- an upset by UIC and a 16-points loss to UNLV -- had recruits and fans leaving unimpressed.
For Illinois' seniors, Saturday's game against Auburn is their last chance to win at the United Center and turn the annual Chicago game back in the program's favor.
"I have no clue (why we've struggled in Chicago,)" Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson said on Thursday. "It's a new year."
Richardson has been on the court for every one of the Illini's last three losses in Chicago.
Against Gonzaga on Jan. 2, 2010, Richardson witnessed Illinois rally from a 21-point first-half deficit to take an eight-point lead in the second half and finally fall 85-83 in overtime. He had six points in 15 minutes as a freshman.
Against UIC on Dec. 18, 2010, the Illini were riding a seven-game winning streak and came in ranked No. 14. On the other hand, the Flames had a first-year coach in Howard Moore and were under .500. None of that mattered as the Illini surrendered an eight-point second-half lead and lost 57-54.
"That was bad," said Richardson, who had 13 points in the loss. "That was terrible. That's all I can say."
Against UNLV on Dec. 17, 2011, the Illini, who were ranked No. 19, suffered another tough loss. The Rebels pulled away from Illinois late in the first half and kept it that way in the second half to close out with a 64-48 win.
"It was tough," said Richardson, who with a game-high 19 points was only the Illini player in double figures. "I don't want to count myself out of last year's game. As a team, we didn't play great. We didn't play good enough for us to win."
Not only have the Chicago losses been difficult to swallow for Illinois, they've also led to disappointing second-half finishes. After the Gonzaga loss, Illinois went 12-11 the rest of the year. After UIC, it went 10-13. After UNLV, it went 7-15. The Illini have been to the NCAA tournament once in the last three seasons.
With Illinois off to a 12-1 start this season, the Illini are optimistic that trend will change. A win over Auburn in Chicago could just springboard the Illini into the Big Ten season and set up another NCAA bid.
"That's what we're looking for," Richardson said. "Looking to go into this game, just having a refreshed start. It's going to be the second semester for school, second part of the season, just end the non-conference part on a good note. Try to go 13-1 in non-conference, go into the Big Ten, that's a whole season and get focused for that."
Illinois first-year coach John Groce understands what Chicago means to the program and said this week he planned to continue the tradition of the Chicago game.
"We're excited to go to Chicago," Groce said. "It's a huge area for us not only for alumni, but for a recruiting standpoint. We're really excited to have an opportunity to play up there. I know our guys are looking forward to it."
TOP 25 SCOREBOARD
Final Washington State 45 Colorado State 48 Final 20 Fresno State 20 25 USC 45 Final Buffalo 24 San Diego State 49 Final Tulane 21 Louisiana-Lafayette 24
Final Pittsburgh 30 Bowling Green 27 Final Utah State 21 23 Northern Illinois 14
Final Marshall 31 Maryland 20 Final Syracuse 21 Minnesota 17 Final Brigham Young 16 Washington 31
Final Rutgers 16 Notre Dame 29 Final Cincinnati 17 North Carolina 39 Final Miami (FL) 9 18 Louisville 36 Final Michigan 14 Kansas State 31
Final Middle Tennessee 6 Navy 24 Final Ole Miss 25 Georgia Tech 17 Final 10 Oregon 30 Texas 7 Final 14 Arizona State 23 Texas Tech 37
Final Arizona 42 Boston College 19 Final Virginia Tech 12 17 UCLA 42 Final Rice 7 Mississippi State 44 Final 24 Duke 48 21 Texas A&M 52
Final Nebraska 24 22 Georgia 19 Final UNLV 14 North Texas 36 Final Iowa 14 16 LSU 21 Final 19 Wisconsin 24 9 South Carolina 34 Final 5 Stanford 20 4 Michigan State 24 Final 15 UCF 52 6 Baylor 42
Final 13 Oklahoma State 31 8 Missouri 41 Final 12 Clemson 40 7 Ohio State 35