Klee: Illini to get earful at Indiana

Klee: Illini to get earful at Indiana

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. โ€” Without much fanfare, Illinois basketball will reenter the rankings today.

Not those rankings. This one: Top three most-hated rivals on Indiana's hit list.

"There's a special place in our heart for Illinois," said Chris Port, an Indiana student and the president of the Crimson Guard support group.

"It may not get as much publicity as our rivalries with Purdue and Kentucky, but it's certainly a game that everyone marks on their calendar at the start of the season."

So the Illini are in an elite club. Flattering, right?

"It's not quite at the Purdue-Indiana level, but it's getting there," said Indiana writer Dustin Dopirak of the Bloomington Herald-Times, adding, "I'd put Illinois at a solid third (behind Purdue and Kentucky)."

Around 7 a.m. today, Indiana students will begin lining up outside Assembly Hall for tonight's game between the 23rd-ranked Hoosiers and Illini (7, BTN).

Roughly 12 hours later is when it promises to get weird. Assembly Hall will be the loudest, most influential and (sometimes) nastiest road environment the Illini (16-7, 5-5 Big Ten) will encounter this season. Always is.

Those new to the party might assume the animosity stems from the Eric Gordon Jr./Sr. drama or some other clash in the past decade. Of course it goes much deeper than that, especially when it comes to Illinois coach Bruce Weber. Twenty-six of his 32-plus seasons as a coach have been spent opposing Indiana in the Big Ten. Even during his foray into the Missouri Valley Conference, he found Indiana (18-6, 6-6) on SIU's nonconference schedule.

"I believe IU fans dislike Weber personally more than they dislike Illinois as a whole," said Diporak, who noted Kentucky's John Calipari is the most reviled coach among Indiana fans. "While I believe IU fans could come up with a long list of Purdue and Kentucky players they despise, I'm not sure they can rustle up the same amount of hate for say, Frank Williams or Kendall Gill."

As a head coach, Weber is 12-6 against the Hoosiers. He's 11-5 against them as the coach at Illinois. Six of those Illinois wins were by double-digits. And even the losses were close; the Illini under Weber haven't lost to the Hoosiers by more than four points.

The series success isn't a coincidence. This one's personal for the Illinois coach. With that much shared history, wouldn't it be for anyone?

"It's not one of my favorite teams or whatever. There's no doubt you have an intense rivalry," Weber said Wednesday. "I saw a little bit of the ("Big Ten Icons") thing with Coach Keady... and it ended with the Purdue-Indiana rivalry. I was there for most of that.

"Then you come over here (to Illinois) and it's a border war. Iowa-Illinois-Indiana โ€” all three of those teams have all battled through the years. It's a big game obviously. It goes way beyond my years. There's some tradition there that makes it a special game."

In Weber's time at Illinois, there have been some gems thrown his way from the Indiana crowd. One fan, ahem, questioned his shoe choice. Weber was wearing white sneakers.

"It's for Coaches vs. Cancer," Weber replied to the man behind the bench.

That didn't appease the man in the red sweatshirt. He simply moved on to critique Weber's coaching. At least in the Big Ten, no fan spits venom like an Indiana fan.

UI assistant coach Jerrance Howard spent more time than most Illini around the Hoosiers program. One of his closest friends was fellow Peorian A.J. Guyton.

Ask him about memories from Indiana's Assembly Hall โ€” good or bad โ€” and Howard recalls Indiana's 88-57 upset of No. 9 Illinois in 2002.

"Loudest I've ever heard a building," said Howard, a player at the time. "It might still be a record."

Is it overboard? That's an open debate. Illinois players said they were hit by pieces of popcorn โ€” a preferable object to get hit by, really โ€” as they left the court at Assembly Hall last season. But that wasn't the image that stuck with the Illini after their most recent trip to Bloomington. The lasting memory was Tom Crean's victory lap after the 52-49 win lifted the Hoosiers to 2-6 in the Big Ten. Prior to their next meeting, the UI coaches showed video of the Hoosiers' postgame celebration. Illinois won the second matchup by 24 points.

"You've got to give them some credit that they've stuck with them (after the fallout from the Kelvin Sampson era)," Weber said of the Indiana fanbase. "Now they're a factor."

Whether Indiana basketball is back โ€” a popular phrase after wins against Kentucky and Ohio State โ€” also is debatable. A .500 conference record suggests that notion was premature.

The fans, however, never left. The Crimson Guard has 7,800 members, a record for Indiana, and the group claims to be the largest in the country. The five remaining home games are sold out. That includes today's matchup against its No. 3 rival โ€” give or take, depending on whom you ask.

"Also, I would be expecting a lot of 'Sit down Bruce!' coming from the student section throughout the game," Port said, adding, "If last year was any indication, I would expect Assembly Hall to be buzzing."

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Bear8287 wrote on February 09, 2012 at 10:02 am

Great chance for the Illini to drop Indiana from the Top 25 rankings.

Go Illini!