Asmussen | Another Chicago letdown at the United Center for Illini

Asmussen | Another Chicago letdown at the United Center for Illini

Not another "Why is Illinois wasting a home game in Chicago?" column.

Well, yes.

But this time, it is not the school's fault. Unlike during the football season, when Illinois agreed to play South Florida at Soldier Field instead of Memorial Stadium.

Lovie Smith's team let a late lead slip away. We will never know if playing the game at home would have meant a win, but for the sake of this argument, let's go with a firm "Yes."

Back to basketball.

Illinois feels compelled to spend at least one of its home opportunities playing in the biggest city in the state.

It has become a tradition, dating back to 1994.

In theory, it is a great idea. But the problem for Illinois in Chicago is finding the right opponent.

And with an expanded conference schedule, Illinois is running out of open spots.

The school came up with a solution. For at least one year.

Illinois decided to play a Big Ten home game, one of its 10, at the United Center.

Unfortunately, Illinois didn't get to choose the opponent. Or the timing. That was left to the Big Ten and its TV partners.

They picked Ohio State for Illinois. On Wednesday. In early December.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood is a team player with a long-term, high-paying contract.

"We love Chicago," Underwood said. "Chicago is our home away from home."

It just isn't home.

"We're so blessed that the State Farm Center is a beautiful arena, it's an incredible home court," Underwood said. "If I had my druthers, I would play every single game there. Unfortunately, there are 10 of them we've got to play on the road.

"We're proud to be up here," Underwood said. "We're proud to get our guys back home that are from here. I know we're going to go home Saturday and we're going to have close to 15,000 there."

There weren't 15,000 at the United Center. Not even close.

The announced crowd was 5,285, 25 percent capacity in the 20,917-seat arena.

What can Illinois do to build the Chicago attendance?

"That's a great question," Underwood said. "Probably people other than me need to answer that. I guess maybe if were 8-0 or something. We'll control what we can control. When it's time to play in the United Center, we'll be here."

Even on a chilly weeknight, the crowd at State Farm Center would have been solid. Unlike Wednesday at the United Center. Where the crowd was tiny.

Ten minutes before the opening tip, there weren't 1,000 people in the seats.

Hanging tough

Credit the people in the stands — mostly wearing orange and blue — for making a lot of noise.

Would the outcome have been different for the Illini at home? No way to know for sure, but Illini fans would have liked to see it.

Ohio State had to prefer playing at the UC over SFC.

"This did get loud," Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. "But I'm sure in Champaign it gets louder."

The Buckeyes aren't done with the United Center. They play UCLA here on Dec. 22.

And both teams will be back for the Big Ten tournament.

How about this?

Maybe it is time for Illinois to put the Chicago game on hold. Not forever, but for a few years at least.

Plenty of Chicago area options exist, like the Big Ten tournament every other year and Northwestern in nearby Evanston. The Wildcats host the Illini on Jan. 6.

That game and the Big Ten tournament should have been enough.

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

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