CHAMPAIGN — Michigan’s Max Bielfeldt played his first college game on a campus that has a building named after his family.
His grandparents helped endow the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building, which opened in 1996.
Bielfeldt, a Peoria Notre Dame product, had four points and two rebounds in six minutes to help the second-ranked Wolverines pull away for a 74-60 victory.
The end result was great for Bielfeldt, but his first shot was one he’d probably like to forget. The redshirt freshman air balled his first free throw with 16:53 left in the second half, prompting the Orange Krush to give him a heaping of jeers. He missed his second free long off the back rim before making two free throws with 16:22 remaining to pad Michigan’s lead to 43-37.
“It wasn’t a great debut with the air ball,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “In fact, that was one of the first things we made fun of. All his teammates were on him in the locker room.”
“I wasn’t that flustered at the beginning,” Bielfeldt said of his air ball. “I just kind of put a hitch in it.”
He scored his first bucket on an offensive rebound putback that put Michigan ahead 48-37, its biggest lead of the game at the time, with 15:01 left.
Bielfeldt — who saw extended time in the second half after Michigan’s Jordan Morgan went down with an ankle injury early in the game — had played at the Assembly Hall before, in the Shootout at the Hall in 2010. The atmosphere this time around was a tad different.
“In high school you could see every single gray seat,” said Bielfeldt, who estimated 20 family members were in attendance. “There were no seats unfilled (this time). It’s all orange and obviously so much louder.”
Illinois unveiled the latest jersey that will hang from the Assembly Hall rafters in a pregame ceremony: Govoner Vaughn’s No. 35.
Vaughn, an Edwardsville graduate who played with fellow Illinois great Mannie Jackson in high school and at Illinois from 1958 to ’60, works with the Harlem Globetrotters as the team’s alumni director.
“This is the best I’ve ever been received,” Vaughn said. “I got very emotional after it, and I couldn’t believe it. It was like a dream come true.”
Jackson was honored with his jersey being lifted to the rafters prior to the Minnesota game on Jan. 9.
“It seems like we’ve been joined at the hip for a long time,” Vaughn said. “For him to be up there, and now me, it’s just great. He’s always good company, and he’s a heck of guy, teammate and friend.”
The Phoenix resident’s eyes beamed during the pregame ceremony and at halftime. It was his first time back at an Illinois game since 2008.
“I left 80-degree weather, but I said I got to go to Champaign,” Vaughn said with a laugh. “Even if it was 1 degree or whatever it is outside.”
Sunday’s game marked the fourth straight sellout at the Assembly Hall.
Jason Heggemeyer, Illinois’ ticket director, is hopeful a fifth one happens next Sunday against Wisconsin — scheduled for a 2:30 p.m. start — which will end shortly before the Super Bowl kicks off.
“It’s a big game for us,” Heggemeyer said. “I think it’s important that people know you have time to leave the game and get back to watch the Super Bowl. It shouldn’t impact anyone’s Super Bowl plans.”
Heggemeyer said 1,800 seats remain in C Section for the Wisconsin game, and a faculty/staff promotion will be held where all tickets are $15.
Heggemeyer added the Purdue, Penn State and Nebraska games will also have another promotion, where fans can buy tickets for all three games for $50, which represents the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Hall.
Heggemeyer said the Michigan game sold out before Christmas.
“It looks like people will turn out,” Heggemeyer said a half-hour before tip Sunday despite some rainy and cold conditions. “I’m excited. It will be loud.”
The loss to Michigan marked the third Sunday home game of the season for Illinois, which will have no more after hosting Wisconsin.
“Saturday (games) are always our best sellers,” Heggemeyer said. “Sundays, if it’s an early afternoon (game), we can have some success, but the night-time ones are tough. I’m a parent, so I understand it’s tough to have your kids out at night.”
Basketball isn’t the only sport popular in Glenn Robinson’s family tree.
The former Purdue standout, whose son Glenn Robinson III had 12 points and seven rebounds in Sunday’s game for Michigan, has a talented football player in his gene pool.
Gelen Robinson, a junior linebacker/defensive end from Lake Central High School in St. John, Ind., has interest from Illinois along with a handful of Big Ten schools like his father’s alma mater (Purdue) and his brother’s current school (Michigan).
Gelen Robinson was on hand for Sunday’s game, one of 30 juniors Illinois coach Tim Beckman had in attendance to cap off a large junior day weekend. Nearly 200 football prospects made their way to campus this weekend.
Robinson III said he’s proud of his younger brother for his football accomplishments.
“Even if he decides to come (to Illinois), I’ll still support him,” Robinson III said. “Just like my mom and dad told me, whatever is the best fit for him is what I recommended to him. It’s totally up to him.”
The number of Nnanna Egwu fans continues to increase.
Count BTN analyst and former Northwestern star Shon Morris among them.
Morris — who helped call Sunday’s game for BTN along with Eric Collins — said the development of the Illinois starting center’s offensive repertoire this season has led him to become a believer in Egwu. Especially after Egwu — who opened the game with a dunk off an alley-oop pass from Brandon Paul and started off the game guarding Michigan point guard Trey Burke — showed raw offensive skills last year while averaging 1.9 points.
“You can tell the kid wants to get better,” Morris said. “His offensive game continues to improve. He’s already a very good defender, and if his offensive game continues to expand I think the future for that guy is tremendous.”
Morris said the way Groce has tailored his system to the specific group of players he has is another measure he’s taken note of.
“I’ve been really impressed with how he’s gotten these guys to play a far different style than they did last year,” Morris said. “These guys are adjusting to a system that they weren’t recruited to play. To his credit, he hasn’t fully implemented all the stuff he wants to do.”
Finding a point guard that can score, handle and defend like the one Groce had last year at Ohio in D.J. Cooper is another key component Morris said to keep in mind with future Groce teams at Illinois.
“Tracy Abrams is a great guard, but he’s almost as good off the ball as he is on the ball,” Morris said. “I’ve been impressed with how these guys have adjusted and how he hasn’t tried to force too much on them.”
Talk of Illinois sitting on the list of NCAA tournament bubble teams will undoubtedly start to surface after Sunday’s loss.
Morris said the quality nonconference wins Illinois has achieved this year can go a long way toward ensuring a tournament berth. Of course, Illinois will have some ground to make up, but he likes the position the Illini have put themselves in so far.
“They’re a good basketball team,” Morris said. “They’re at their best when they dribble drive and don’t just settle for quick threes. When they played Minnesota they took a lot of quick threes, and when they settle for that they’re a very easy team to defend.”
Morris said it wouldn’t surprise him if the eventual Big Ten champion has at least five losses, and a .500 record in the Big Ten would put Illinois off any talk of bubble teams.
“Winning at Gonzaga and beating a Butler team that is consistently in the top 20 was big,” Morris said. “They’re still very much in the hunt for a bid.”