UI crowd might be difference-maker
CHAMPAIGN – Not to bring up a sore subject, but let's revisit Selection Sunday.
Why? How Illinois recovered from a devastating snub probably would determine how long it stuck around in the NIT. Would the Illini care?
Would they throw in the towel?
"The biggest thing is we have to refocus our guys," coach Bruce Weber said then.
There was some grieving, some swearing. To their credit, the Illini didn't publicly blame anyone but themselves.
So that part has been established: Illinois would rather play in the Gus Macker than the NIT, but it wasn't given a choice, and the Illini showed enough gusto to win a first-round road game at Stony Brook. Now with Kent State coming to the Assembly Hall on Monday (7 p.m. ESPNU), the next part isn't so much about the Illini, but their fans.
What will be the response at the first NIT game at the Assembly Hall in 14 years?
Ticket sales have been good, not great, but promising. About 7,800 tickets had been sold as of Sunday. A Section quickly sold out. B Section still has some general-admission seats available behind the baskets for those who arrive early Monday night. It's spring break, and about 250 student tickets have been sold.
"If we get anywhere from 7-10,000, those are pretty loyal fans," Weber said.
"There's no history for this here," UI ticket director Jason Heggemeyer said. "There's no gauge for this here. So I think we're pretty happy with how this has gone. I think that's pretty fantastic for only having three days (or so to sell tickets)."
If all of those ticket-buyers show up, the DIA would be ecstatic to welcome a crowd that size for an NIT game. The most recent NIT game at the Assembly Hall, a 1996 contest against Alabama, drew 8,398.
The last three games at the Assembly Hall were forgettable. Evan Turner and Ohio State won there by 19 points. There were boos when Minnesota won there 62-60. Wisconsin won there by 15.
"We've got to get back to winning on our home floor," co-captain Bill Cole said. "I think this will be a great opportunity to do it."
Really, unless it advances to the NIT Final Four at Madison Square Garden, Illinois is in a no-win situation. Beating Kent State at home is expected.
Despite the solid ticket sales, the Assembly Hall probably will appear about half full. Weber's sideline voice will carry, and any groans from the crowd will be exaggerated.
Weber has made protecting their homecourt a point of emphasis. When the Illini returned from Stony Brook about 2 a.m. Thursday, he brought up the home losing streak in a brief team meeting.
"We always meet and talk about what our plans are," he said. "The one little zap that I did give them was our last three home games were not very good."
Among Big Ten teams, Illinois was second in average home attendance (15,567 in 16 games). Though most of the things being said about the team aren't so endearing, the fans have continued to show up – at least to this point.
"We've got loyal fans," co-captain Demetri McCamey said. "Even though we're in the NIT, people keep telling us to win it all to show that we belong in the (NCAA) tournament."
"The fans always do a great job," junior Mike Davis said. "They're always loud, and they always come out and support and (are) behind us, usually."
The Monday winner faces the Dayton-Cincinnati winner Wednesday (ESPN2). Though Illinois wants to relocate its homecourt mojo, Kent State has nine true road wins, third most in program history.
"We've had a very good program for a long time," Golden Flashes coach Geno Ford said. "But we're not in a position where we can take these teams lightly."