"It did get loud tonight, but I'm sure in Champaign it gets louder"
- Ohio State Coach Chris Holtmann
On December 11, 2004, Illinois played the Oregon Ducks here in the United Center. A mere 21,224 fans showed up that Saturday afternoon to watch an 83-66 Illini win. A legit sell-out. In his post-game write-up Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Morrissey had this to say about the game: "There hasn't been this much excitement for a game at the United Center since Michael Jordan was a Bull".
I can confirm. I was also in attendance and the Madhouse on Madison was straight up rocking that day.
Flash forward 14 years to tonight where a moribund crowd of just over 5000 fans was scattered aimlessly throughout this very same building to watch Ohio State methodically turn a four point half time deficit into what ended up as a rather comfortable 77-67 win for the Buckeyes over Illinois.
The annual United Center game is officially dead, and that makes me immeasurably sad for not long ago it was a can't miss appointment for the huge contingent of Chicago area Illini fans. When the game was announced you circled the calendar and happily agreed to pay whatever damn price they printed on the ticket to come watch. You came downtown, you did some Christmas shopping, you watched Illinois play a marquee opponent in a marquee game, and you usually went home happy.
Now the game is not much more than an afterthought at 6:00 PM on a random Wednesday. Now you buy $20 seats on the day of the game in the upper 300 level and walk down unchallenged to near floor level and sit just about anywhere you want. Now you come watch Illinois struggle against random teams from the Mountain West conference. I guess now at least you can buy whatever volume of beer necessary in which to drown your Illini sorrows. Last year after Illinois lost to New Mexico State in front of a similarly sparse crowd, I politely suggested that it might be time to take a closer look at whether this game was still a good idea. Tonight I'm begging for game to be killed with fire.
While I understand the theoretical importance of the Illinois DIA trying to maintain a presence in the Chicago area, in reality there's no real presence at all. This game (and this goes for football too) generates no buzz with media, fans, or potential recruits. On the contrary, it actually invites negative press. The real story tonight wasn't the game. Yeah Illinois lost again and yeah it's the worst start in 100 and whatever years for the program, but all anyone was talking about before and after the game was the crowd - or rather the lack thereof. No one wants this game any more.
Plus you take away a conference home game on a day when students are in session? Heresy! Those dates should be sacrosanct. If the powers that be ultimately believe that a yearly Chicago basketball game remains necessary, then at least do it in January over winter break so the negative effect on the home court is mitigated at least somewhat.
Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann demurred when asked after the game if he thought there was a real home court advantage for Illinois in this game - giving a politically correct non-answer instead about how much respect he has for the program and its fans.
Asked the same question Illinois coach Brad Underwood also danced around the subject saying that "people other than me should probably answer that one", but then unprompted he went ahead anyway and said how much he was looking forward to the 15000 people he anticipated being in attendance for this Saturday's game at the State Farm Center vs UNLV.
He also had this to say after the game about the future of the program: "When this hits, when it turns - it's going to be something really really special". So let's make a deal...when it turns - when it's special again, sign me right back up because I want this game to be great, and I want to be here to again witness 20,000 in orange rock this place.
But for now - let's just not.
Actual Basketball Thoughts:
+ Tonight was a big step backwards from the Illini newcomers. Only 18 of the 67 Illini points scored tonight were from the new roster additions, and only 10 of those points (5 from Ayo and 5 from Giorgi B) were from freshmen. With a ratio like that you're just basically just seeing last year's team on repeat.
+ Ayo has to be better for this team to be successful. He's only made 7 of his last 31 shots over the past three games. Plus with only 7 assists over the same stretch - he's not been impacting the game in other areas either. He's going to be on the floor, so hopefully he emerges from this funk sooner than later.
+ Adonis De La Rosa is not helping things right now. He was -13 in just five minutes of play. Now I'm not usually a big fan of the "plus/minus" stat, but if you watched the game, you know that's a fairly accurate statistical representation of his impact on the contest.
+ #GoodKipper !
+ The Illini made just 9 of 22 shots at the rim tonight. Not. Good. Enough. After Underwood was hired I watched a video of him running a practice at Oklahoma State during which he implored: "YOU'RE GROWN MEN - MAKE A LAY-UP!". That's probably good advice for this Illini team moving forward.
+ I am seeing some encouraging signs from the defense. In these first two conference games Nebraska and Ohio State combined to shoot only 51% on two point attempts. That's acceptable. Now if you can stop sending teams to the foul line (48 made FTs allowed in the last two games) maybe you start to have something.
+ The Illini host UNLV this Saturday and if there is such a thing as a must win game for a 2-7 team, this game is indeed that.