CHICAGO — Leading up to 12th-ranked Illinois’ game Saturday against Auburn at the United Center, there was plenty of talk about the program’s recent struggles in the city and inside the arena in particular.
The senior class was 0 for 3 in the United Center and the Illini had lost 5 of 6 games in front of the Chicago fans.
Last week the Illini failed in their quest to end a three-game losing streak in St. Louis against Missouri. Saturday’s 81-79 win against Auburn got them on the winning side in the city from where half the roster hails.
“It was a big deal since we didn’t get accomplished what we wanted down in St. Louis. We did a good job,” Chicagoan Nnanna Egwu said. “It was great. The Bulls are my favorite team, so playing on their court is special. To come back to Chicago and have all the Illini fans here was fun. It was good to play in front of them and it’s a nice thing we get to do here every year.”
All that first-year coach John Groce cares about is the result.
“I don’t get caught up in what’s happened in the past. I am glad for the seniors that were able to get their first one here because of how hard they work and how good of kids those guys are. That part’s good,” Groce said. “We love coming up here, I love it. We’re blessed to have it. It’s a great sports city. Our alumni are unbelievable; that’s indicative today of the crowd. It’s a big area for us recruiting. It’s a special place, special city. We’re lucky that it’s so close to our campus. We enjoy coming up. Hopefully they’ll continue to have us.”
Had Illinois lost Saturday, it still would have gotten the chance to exorcise some United Center demons in March as the Big Ten tournament returns to the building.
“Obviously the Big Ten tournament started in Chicago, it’s always great to be in Chicago,” said Scott Chipman, the conference’s assistant commissioner for communications. “We love Indianapolis, we love Chicago; two great facilities, two great fan bases. It’s great to be back in Chicago, we’re looking forward to the event.”
The first four Big Ten tournaments, which began in 1998, were at the United Center. It alternated between Indianapolis and Chicago from 2002 to ’07 and the last five have been in Indianapolis.
It will alternate between the two cities the next four years.
“In the past, there’s been a lot of excitement from the fans. We’ve got a lot of great teams in the Big Ten this year, a lot of alums in the Chicagoland area that are going to be excited about watching Big Ten basketball,” Chipman said. “There’s a ton of Illinois alums in the Chicago area. They come out for this game and they’ll come out for the Big Ten tournament, too.”
Illinois, 23-13 in Big Ten tournament games, has especially thrived when the event is played in Chicago, where it is 14-6 with two championships (2003, ‘05).
The projection from the Illinois ticket office called for about 16,000 fans at Saturday’s game. The official attendance was 18,139 and the raucous crowd was the first topic of conversation for Groce afterward.
“First of all, unbelievable crowd. Wow, that was phenomenal; 18,000-plus so my hat goes off to Illini Nation for coming out,” he said. “I thought they got loud there a couple different times at under-8 (media timeout) when we needed stops, they stood up and they were going bonkers. It was great to have their support. They’re a huge part of this one today. We owe them; they did a great job.”
Sam McLaurin hasn’t spent much time in Chicago. The native of Havana, Fla., who hears about the city regularly from his teammates, marveled at the history of the United Center during his first trip to the venue.
“It was fun. You look up in the rafters and see all those banners, all the great players who played here, it’s special for me,” the Coastal Carolina transfer said. “Coming from the midmajor ranks it’s a fun experience.”
The 1:15 p.m. start was the earliest tip for Illinois this season. It caught McLaurin a little off guard.
“I told Coach before the game, I’ve never played a game this early. We don’t get these TV time slots like this. It was a lot of fun,” he said.
For the fourth consecutive game, the Illini three-point shooting was cold. Illinois, which led the nation in three-pointers made for much of the season, went 4 for 15 from distance Saturday.
Illinois is 24 for 93 (25.8 percent) from behind the three-point line in the last four games.
“We’re going to continue shooting threes because we’re good at it,” Groce said.
In turn, Illinois did a better job than it has all season at attacking the basket. The Illini attempted a season-high 40 free throws and made 27 of them.
Tracy Abrams was 13 for 15 and Brandon Paul made 7 of 10 to lead the charge.
“I think the one thing that’s opened up now because of the way people are guarding us is our ability to drive the ball,” Groce said. “We ran the first play, threw it to Nnanna inside and I like how he’s coming along. He’s getting better. Sam had a couple of key buckets down low. Tracy got to the rim, Brandon got to the rim, Joe (Bertrand) got to the rim. I think as we continue to grow, we’ll have those things complementing each other more.”
For the second straight game, the Illini allowed a high volume of points. Missouri scored 82 in its win last week in St. Louis. Auburn, which was averaging 67 points entering Saturday, put up 79 against an Illinois team that was giving up 64 points per game.
“I thought we struggled defensively throughout. You look at the percentages they shot in both halves, obviously the first half was a big concern,” Groce said. “I didn’t think our defense had a lot of bite until about eight minutes to go in the first half, then we started to compete better.”
Offensively, aside from the outside shooting, Illinois was playing efficient. The Illini shot 53 percent in the first half and had four turnovers at halftime.
“We were rolling on offense. You can’t roll like that on offense if you’re not locked in,” Groce said.
When the Illini were struggling defensively, particularly in the first half, they switched to a zone that seemed to give the Tigers fits.
“Coach does a good job of letting us know when we’re going into zone, and when we do that we just try to capitalize on the length that we have and our athleticism,” Paul said. “Whenever we do that, we try to keep the ball away from the middle, so that’s one thing we’ve got to continue to get better at. As long as we communicate on the court, as long as we’re on the same page, I think we’re going to do good.”