Flyin' Illini reunion 'a sign' of good hoops mojo to Jordan

Flyin' Illini reunion 'a sign' of good hoops mojo to Jordan

CHAMPAIGN — Aaron Jordan remembers the last Flyin' Illini reunion well.

Back in town to celebrate the 25th anniversary of their Final Four, the 1988-89 squad was on hand for quite the game. Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams, Jon Ekey and Joe Bertrand all scored in double figures, and Illinois jumped on Penn State early before running away in the second half for a 75-55 blowout.

Jordan, a junior at Plainfield East at the time, watched that 20-point win from the bleachers next to the Illinois bench. Bleachers that no longer exist after the Assembly Hall to State Farm Center renovations.

That game remains fresh in Jordan's mind. Particularly what happened after, when he told then Illinois coach John Groce that he was committing to the Illini.

The Flyin' Illini are back in town this weekend, celebrating their 30th anniversary today. Illinois (10-16, 6-9 Big Ten) is set to play Penn State (10-16, 3-12) at 11 a.m. at State Farm Center.

"I take things as a sign, and I'm going to say that's a sign right there for us," Jordan said with a smile. "The basketball gods are working in our favor."

Jordan had his mind made up about committing to the Illini in the week before Illinois and Penn State met on Jan. 4, 2014. He kept his decision mostly to himself, telling only his family. He wanted to surprise the Illini coaching staff. That the Flyin' Illini were in town and Illinois ran over Penn State only made that day more special for Jordan.

"Just being around and seeing all those guys here, that's what I wanted to be a part of," Jordan said. "Such a historic day. I felt like that was a perfect time."

Jordan finds it hard to believe that he committed five years ago and that his run at Illinois is nearing its end.

Plenty has changed between Flyin' Illini anniversaries, too. Jordan is on his second coach after Groce was fired following his sophomore season and Brad Underwood hired. The 6-foot-5 guard has also become a key rotation piece the last two seasons — off the bench last year and as a starter most of this season, playing more and producing more than he did under Groce.

"I don't know where time went considering it's my senior year with Senior Night coming up," Jordan said. Including today's game, he's got three left at State Farm Center. "Time flew by. I don't regret one year at all. A lot of people say, 'Oh, he probably hated his first two years.' I just take that as learning experience. I wouldn't be the person am I today without those two years."

Jordan has had more opportunities to speak with members of the Flyin' Illini than any of his teammates — the benefit of a full, four-year career. He's held on to one piece of advice in particular that he's heard from several of them.

"One of the biggest things is they tell us as a team to stay together," Jordan said. "We're all we have. Even off the court. The tighter you are off the court, the better you'll be on the court. That's what they did back in the day. Whether it was getting up shots or going to see a movie or going out to eat, be with a teammate and always be around your guys."

Underwood wants his team to embrace moments like they'll get this weekend. He wants to leave a lasting impression on the Flyin' Illini, too.

"Every great program has to create a culture and environment where players like that want to come back and know it's home," Underwood said. "When they're going to watch this current team play, I want them to be able to look out there and say, 'Man, that's the way we did it. We played hard.' I want those guys to sit in the stands (Saturday) and be extremely proud.

"It means a lot. All of our guys know who they are. They've had (Stephen) Bardo around and had Kendall (Gill) around because of proximity, but it will be great for them to meet the others and hear their stories and their struggles and their fun times."

Gill came back to State Farm Center earlier this season when his commemorative bobblehead was released. Kenny Battle and Marcus Liberty did the same. They're still fan favorites based on the response they got from the Illinois fans.

Jordan is banking on a full Flyin' Illini reunion making State Farm Center an even tougher place to play for Penn State.

"I can't wait for it, to be honest," he said. "Everybody's going to be cheering loud. I expect a packed house, and we're going to feed off that. It's going to be to our advantage."