Klee: On former, current and future Illini
Illinois' 2001 and 2002 Big Ten champions were the guests of honor.
The 2005 NCAA runner-ups were cheered. Flyin' Illini Stephen Bardo ran the court and Kendall Gill dunked. One of the champions — Cory Bradford — got choked up as he addressed the Assembly Hall crowd.
There was even a slumber party. The Howards — Jerrance and Jessica — hosted "about 20 families" at their house for the Illinois basketball alumni weekend, Jerrance said.
"People are on the couch, on the floor, playing board games, just having a great time," he said.
Everything considered — the pros leaving for overseas gigs in the next few weeks, traveling to and from East Central Illinois, the incredible heat inside the non-air-conditioned Assembly Hall — the Illinois basketball alumni game was a huge hit.
"We got so many guys back that we didn't anticipate, which made it even better," said special events director Rod Cardinal, the mastermind behind the event. "We're just so appreciative of all the former players and Coach Self and Coach Kruger. And Coach Weber for organizing all of this. His relationship with alumni is very important to him."
"We started on Thursday night and we're still doing it," added Howard, who played for all three coaches involved in the event — Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber. Lou Henson had a family reunion in Oklahoma or he would have been in attendance, as well.
"The fans here are so special," said Kruger, the first-year Oklahoma coach and the honorary coach for the Blue team Saturday.
"The administration here was great, working with Ron Guenther. He had a lot of good people here working with him. But the fans are the key to any program."
* * *
The event turned into a recruiting bonanza, as well. Few programs have this sort of an event, especially in August, and the coaches took advantage.
Among the prospects in attendance: Larry Austin Jr. (Springfield Lanphier, 2014), Jahlil Okafor (Whitney Young, 2014), Paul White (Whitney Young, 2014), Darius Austin (Cahokia, 2014), Peyton Allen (Chatham Glenwood, 2014), Keita Bates-Diop (Normal U-High, 2014) and Jordan Ash (Bolingbrook, 2015).
During the alumni game, Bruce Weber spent time with the three USA Basketball members — Austin, Okafor and White — that sat together in the front row.
One scenario capped the evening for the visitors. After the game, Jerrance Howard led the herd of high schoolers into the locker room, where they spent a minute with Deron Williams. Ash, a point guard, also asked if he could meet Dee Brown, and he did.
"It was great seeing all the old players and the new players at the same time," said Illinois recruit Jalen James, who had a front-row seat. "It was really great watching the new players."
* * *
As for those new players, well, it's August. And it showed.
"They were kind of rusty," recruit Jalen James said, summing up the 20-minute scrimmage.
Coaches lamented the turnovers and poor shooting. The nerves were apparent, as was the unfamiliarity of a roster that features seven new names. Still, the scrimmage was the first opportunity for the new group to play in front of a crowd.
"I think we have more people we can use. If they contribute — like a Joe Bertrand, a Crandall (Head) — you're going to feel confident (in them)," Bruce Weber said. "Then you feel like you can push up a little bit on defense and push the basketball and use a little more depth. That's what we're going to try to do over there (in Italy)."
Perhaps the most important aspect was avoiding injury — and that didn't happen. Meyers Leonard slipped on a wet spot — blame the heat and condensation on the floor — and re-aggravated a sprained MCL in his left knee. He's been wearing a brace for about a week and probably will be limited on the Italy trip. Leonard left the court without needing help.
"He's been tentative the whole time," Weber said. "He planted (the leg), he didn't feel right, he got a little scared."
* * *
A pair of reserves (last season) expected to slide into bigger roles (next season) enjoyed promising nights. Crandall Head showed his smooth athleticism, if he was careless with the ball at times. He had 11 points, five assists and three turnovers in 17 minutes.
Weber said he still is hoping the 6-foot-5 Head can develop into a point guard later in his career — a testament to his potential and the need for more point guards in the program.
"He can do some things no one else can do. He just goes too fast at times," Weber said. "He had three turnovers. If we can just cut that down a little bit, he's got great potential, there's no doubt."
And Tyler Griffey (six points, eight rebounds) clearly is more comfortable heading into his junior season.
"I feel a lot more comfortable. I don't know what that is. You can tell, my dad said it, teammates have said it. I just feel more comfortable this year," said Griffey, who joked he lost 10 pounds due to the heat inside the Hall. "It makes me excited for Italy."
Freshman Nnanna Egwu had 16 points and seven rebounds and continued to show he's going to be an early factor in the rotation.
"I'm still learning, but it's going well," Egwu said.
* * *
The only current Illini that didn't participate in the intrasquad scrimmage was swingman Devin Langford. He has been nursing a painful thigh bruise and said he won't be able to play on the Italy trip. The Alabaman still is traveling with the Illini, however.
"I'll be good again in about two weeks," Langford said.
Langford spent time with Dee Brown in the practice facility — prior to his injury — a few weeks ago. Brown told coaches he was impressed with the freshman.
"I shot around with him a little bit," Langford said. "That was cool."
* * *
Bill Self made the trip to C-U for a formal gathering with his former players Friday night. He also joined up with his former players for a private gathering at Guidos, a restaurant in downtown Champaign, later Friday.
Lucas Johnson, Robert Archibald, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, Nate Mast, Sean Harrington, Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain joined Self for a few hours of storytelling and jokes late into the night.
On Saturday Sportsline on WDWS, the Kansas coach talked about his ties to Illinois.
"I hope Illinois benefited from us being here. I hope so. But they also benefited from us being gone, too," Self told Jim Turpin and Loren Tate. "That team that Bruce and his staff coached, that team was one of the best teams ever. The pieces fit perfectly and his coaching style fit that talent perfectly. It was good. That was a good thing."
Self and Deron Williams spoke at length late Friday. It's clear there still is a strong relationship there.
"What a player. I don't know if I'll ever have a chance to coach one better," Self said of the NBA All-Star. "I know that Bruce did the majority of coaching with him, without question, but I certainly loved my time with him."
"We told him all along we were going to take Dee and him together. Then when we took Dee, all the sudden that idea didn't sound so good," Self said about D-Will's recruitment to Illinois. "We got Dee to help us recruit him. Then (he said), 'How am I going to be a point guard if you recruited Dee?' I said, 'We'll play two. That's how we play. We play multiple point guards.' "
* * *
Sam Maniscalco transferred to Illinois after four seasons at Bradley — but the senior point guard grew up an Illinois fan. His favorite player was Dee Brown — he first watched the Illini great when Brown was an eighth-grader — so the alumni game had his attention.
Maniscalco played 17 minutes — the most important stat for a guy coming off ankle surgery. He said the ankle is "100 percent," now his conditioning is the focus. Still, he has shown enough that it's fair to pencil him in as the starting point guard.
"I'm on the right track. It's a matter of getting back in shape because I've been out for so long," Maniscalco said. "I'm making progress one day at a time."
The starting lineup for the White team: D.J. Richardson, Tracy Abrams, Crandall Head, Tyler Griffey, Meyers Leonard. And the Blue team: Maniscalco, Brandon Paul, Joseph Bertrand, Mike Shaw and Nnanna Egwu.
* * *
The alumni game was full of highlights, even if the old guys aren't, um, as quick as they once were.
Well, that Deron Williams is OK. The Nets point guard — or is it the Besitkas point guard? — bounced an alley-oop to himself for a dunk. The crowd of about 5,000 cheered when Deron hit Dee for a layup on the break.
"Kendall (Gill) is out there looking like he could still mix it up for a couple teams," said Williams, who soon will travel to Turkey for his first season overseas.
Late in the alumni game, members of the 2004-05 alumni — Deron, Dee, Roger Powell, Jack Ingram and James Augustine — took the court on the same team. Brown said afterward that team "still" could win some of the overseas leagues because of their "chemistry."
"We were a tight-knit group. We did everything together as a team. We included everybody," Williams added. "That's what made us so successful. We had great chemistry off the floor. It transpired on the floor and made us one of the best teams in Illinois history."
Midway through the alumni game, the banners from the 2001 and 2002 Big Ten champions were dropped to the court to recognize those teams. Wife Mindy and daughter Addison represented the late Jeremy Izzo, a student manager for those teams.
There were other highlights. Lucas Johnson waved the Mutombo finger at Brett Melton after blocking his shot. Jerrance Howard, whose goal was to lead in Matto points, plowed into the crowd while chasing a loose ball. Dee hit consecutive three-pointers. There was even a guy wearing a Bubba Chisholm jersey.
"They need to get a game like this every year so I can keep playing on this court," Brown said.