CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- True story: Putting the word "the" in front of "Assembly Hall" makes the place sound at least 40 percent cooler, whether it's in Champaign, Bloomington, or your average high school campus. "The Assembly Hall." It sounds old school, like the place you'd meet for spirit rallies if you attended college in, like, the 1940s. Halcyon days.
Listening to sports radio on the drive down from Chicago, I heard "The Assembly Hall" more often than "Assembly Hall," and this excited me. Why? I don't know. Maybe it's the power of the word. Or maybe the game itself is just that exciting. Illinois fans are certainly treating it as such.
Few home crowds are as diehard as Illinois basketball fans, and it doesn't take much for the Illini faithful to get up. But that passion, to use something of a cliché, really shows on nights like this. College Gameday was here. Michigan State is in town. It's primetime on a Saturday night. The Orange Krush and the countless rows of alumni behind them are ready for this. It will be wild.
Whether the game will live up to the hype is another matter. Kalin Lucas is likely to start the game on Michigan State's bench -- he's officially classified as a gametime decision -- and it'll be interesting to see how the Spartans adapt. (Update: Lucas is out for tonight's game.) And what of Michigan State's recovery? Can the Spartans rebound from their last game, a disastrous road loss to a Wisconsin team that handled them in every facet? Will someone -- Durrell Summers, Raymar Morgan, Chris Allen -- step up in Lucas' place?
There are several questions to be asked about Illinois, too, an atypical Bruce Weber team if ever there were one. There are two things the Illini have almost always done in Weber's tenure. They've 1) played ferocious defense, despite their offensive woes and 2) protected home court as well as anywhere in the country. This year, the Illini haven't done the first and have been shaky at the second. (Illinois is 11-2 at home, but would have lost to Indiana last week were it not for a Demetri McCamey buzzer-beater).
More important is the defense -- Illinois is ranked No. 60 in Pomeroy's defensive ratings, and that's unusual for a Weber-coached team. Even when the Illini have been mediocre in past years, they've defended every possession like its their last. Now that Weber has a host of good recruits -- easing the anxiety among Illinois fans that Weber was a tactical genius who'd never land a marquee player -- the Illini seem less able to defend than ever. It's weird.
Those are the main questions coming into tonight's game: How will Michigan State handle the road crowd and the possibility that star Kalin Lucas won't be with with them? And will Illinois defend? Will home court matter? Where these questions intersect is where you'll find tonight's result. In the meantime, sit back and enjoy. Plenty of orange-clad maniacs -- and I mean maniac as a compliment -- will be joining you.