CHAMPAIGN — When John Groce was asked shortly after he took the job at Illinois if he would continue the tradition of wearing an orange blazer occasionally, he said no.
Sunday, the first-year Illinois coach emerged from the tunnel prior to the game with an orange coat to complement his black pants. He wasn’t the only one in that get-up. Former Illinois coach Lou Henson, the pioneer of the orange threads, sat courtside with his wife Mary wearing one, too.
“Coach Henson and I talked this summer and I told him when he came back from Las Cruces, his first game back, I’d wear the orange coat out of respect for him,” Groce said after No. 10 Illinois’ 66-53 win against Eastern Kentucky. “He was here 21 seasons, he was a terrific coach. He’s been a great sounding board for me, he’s an even better person.”
The Hensons were shown on the videoboard during a timeout and the 15,029 fans at the Assembly Hall erupted into the loudest cheer in the building during this season.
“You can tell from the reception and the response he gets from people. He treats people with respect, he loves people, he loves the Fighting Illini, he loves the orange and blue,” Groce said. “He and Mary are terrific, and out of respect for Coach Henson and what he’s meant for this program and will continue to mean, I wore the orange coat.”
Also in attendance Sunday for the first time this season was Flyin’ Illini legend Kenny Battle. He likes what he saw from the current Illini.
“You have a group of guys that’s having fun, playing hard and enjoying the game. It’s fun,” he said.
Battle hasn’t been able to attend a game yet this season because he’s been busy keeping up with his own kids. He was joined Sunday by sons Kenny and Kendall. His fifth-grader just won a national championship with his youth football team and a daughter is off to a great start on her eighth-grade basketball team.
“I’ll definitely be back, this is the first opportunity I’ve had to come down because my kids have kept me so busy,” said Battle, who lives in Plainfield.
The previous four games Jeff Johnson played at the Assembly Hall had favorable outcomes for him. The Champaign native, who came off the bench for Eastern Kentucky on Sunday, played in the Shootout at the Hall all four years he was starring at Centennial.
The Chargers beat former Illini Bill Cole and Richwoods when he was a freshman. Despite 34 points from Crandall Head, Johnson and the Chargers beat Rich South the next year. They also beat current Illini Joseph Bertrand (Sterling) and former Illini Jereme Richmond (Waukegan).
Sunday’s visit wasn’t as thrilling as the previous ones as Johnson’s Colonels dropped their first game of the season.
“It was great. Big crowd, it was loud, and that’s all you can ask for when you’re going out there playing,” Johnson said. “It’s just unfortunate the way it turned out.”
Johnson, who hit a three-pointer soon after entering the game, scored five points and had two rebounds in 22 minutes off the bench for the Colonels. He estimated that he had about 50 to 100 friends and family in the crowd rooting for him.
“It was real cool. A lot of people have supported me here through high school and kept in touch since I’ve been at EKU,” he said. “It was nice to come back and have them see me play. Wish it would have turned out a little different.”
Sunday’s announced crowd of 15,029 was the biggest of the season at the Assembly Hall, and Groce was appreciative of the turnout. He was told to expect about 14,000 for the game. But ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer told the coach that Sunday’s walkup crowd was one of the best he’s seen in his six years on the job.
“It was awesome,” Groce said. “It was unbelievable. I thought it was great. A couple times in there it got really loud. We’ve got to give them reason to cheer, that’s our responsibility. A couple times we got a key basket and needed a key stop and it seemed a little bit louder in there than normal.
We’re very thankful for that and hopefully that’ll continue to be the case moving forward.”
Immediately after Sunday’s game, Tracy Abrams was headed to the classroom to take a final exam. The Illini have the week off from competition because of final exams, and that will take up a large chunk of their time while preparing for Saturday’s game against Missouri in St. Louis.
“Heavy academic days for us this week are Monday and Tuesday, Wednesday a little bit,” Groce said. “We’ll balance that, get them mentally and physically freshened up and get ready to go. We do have to manage that. Academics are really important to us. Kristin Kane, her academic services staff does an unbelievable job with our guys. She kind of directs that part of the ship and has done a great job, so we’ll kind of follow her lead.”
The final exam schedule runs through Thursday.
When the current senior class entered Illinois, the program was riding a nine-game win streak against Missouri in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. Brandon Paul & Co. have lost the last three to the Tigers. Saturday is an opportunity to close the series out for the class on a high note.
“It’s a huge motivator. We’ve won all our (ACC)/Big Ten Challenges since I’ve been here, we’re undefeated so far and that’s one thing we want to go into conference play undefeated,” Paul said. “One game at a time. We’ve got the Missouri game and that’s huge for us. They’re not just going to hand us the trophy, we’re going to have to fight for it. We have confidence. We’re going to work this week and get better and get ready for that game.”
Prior to the Eastern Kentucky game, the Illini spent Wednesday night at the Hilton Garden Inn listening to a presentation from former NBA guard Chris Herren, who starred at Fresno State. Herren lost his basketball career and nearly his family and life because of an addiction to drugs.
Herren told his story Wednesday night and it really hit home with the players.
“That was unbelievable,” Paul said. “Obviously, I watched a little bit of that ‘30 for 30’ that he was on. I was kind of in and out while I was watching it, I wasn’t really paying attention to it, but I was like ‘Wow, that’s the guy who’s coming to talk?’ Just hearing his story, it’s unbelievable and it just shows that if he can amount to all that, anything can happen with you.
“Me and Nate Scheelhaase took a picture with him afterward and I put it on Twitter. A lot of my friends texted me and were like ‘Wow, you met him? He had a crazy story.’ We talk about it all the time. It’s a blessing that he’s still alive.”
The Illinois players related to Herren and his skill as a basketball player. He was drafted in the second round by the Denver Nuggets and later played for the Boston Celtics.
“Right after, I watched a lot of his YouTube videos and saw how much skill he had on the court and you see how easy people can make the wrong decision and mess up their lives,” D.J. Richardson said. “God gave him another chance.”