CHAMPAIGN — When Indiana’s Jeremy Hollowell made his first three-pointer since December with 9 minutes, 57 seconds minutes left in the second half to put Indiana up by 13 points, the odds didn’t favor Illinois.
Since January hit, Illinois had gone 0-8 in games it has given up at least 60 points. Until Thursday, when the Illini rallied for a 74-72 victory.
The top-ranked Hoosiers came into the game second in the country in scoring at 83.8 points per game while Illinois stood 11th in the conference — and tied at 188th in Division I — in scoring defense at 67.1 points.
Prior to January, Illinois was 10-1 in games opponents scored at least 60 points.
“We just trust the system, and we trust each other,” Illinois guard Tracy Abrams said. “We stayed composed, and we definitely stayed positive. We didn’t let any negative energy affect us.”
Illinois helped make Sean Farnham’s first trip to Assembly Hall memorable.
The ESPN analyst, who played college basketball at UCLA from 1997 to 2000, is making his rounds throughout the country. Saturday he’ll head to Tempe, Ariz., to call the Arizona State-Stanford game before he ventures back to the Midwest for next Thursday’s Minnesota-Wisconsin game in Minneapolis.
Farnham has mainly called West Coast Conference games the last two years for ESPN, but he didn’t need much prodding when his superiors in Bristol, Conn., wanted him to cover the Big Ten. He was part of the call of last Thursday’s Illinois-Michigan State game in East Lansing.
“I’ve seen growth in the Illini,” Farnham said. “I know in the losses it’s sometimes tough to see. When I had them up at Michigan State, the Illini were the better team for about 30 minutes. In the first six minutes of the second half, those turnovers really made them shoot themselves in the foot and took away an opportunity to win a game on the road that would have made people around here really feel different about this team.”
Farnham, a California native who helps run Hoops from Home, a non-profit charity that provides basketball camps for children of military families, said he thinks three players from the Big Ten — Indiana’s Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller, along with Michigan’s Trey Burke — are legitimate national player of the year candidates.
“I love this conference,” Farnham said. “This is the Big Ten’s year, not only from a standpoint of having teams that are capable of having teams capable of going to the Final Four, but it has the best players in the country.”
Farnham pays particularly close attention to what colleague and expert bracketologist Joe Lundardi has to say about Illinois’ NCAA tournament chances. Lunardi had Illinois listed among the first four teams out in his latest update, which he posted Tuesday. That might change after Thursday’s outcome.
“I agree with Lunardi,” Farnham said. “The quality of wins are there. Those matter in the selection committee’s eyes, but the resume is incomplete.”
Farnham said if Illinois can, at the very least, finish 8-10 in the Big Ten — which will mean Illinois has to go at least 5-3 in its final eight games — he feels its NCAA tournament berth is secure. Thursday’s win most certainly helped that cause.
“This team needs to have tunnel vision on 40 minutes of basketball,” Farnham said. “They need to block out the blogs, block out what people are saying on talk radio and block out what the students are saying as they’re walking around campus. They shouldn’t care about what’s going on outside the locker room. If this team does that, they can come together and accomplish some great things.”
Farnham said Illinois reminds him of the UCLA squad he played on during the 1999-2000 season. The Bruins stood at 13-11 after 24 games and then won their final six regular season games to make the NCAA tournament before losing to Iowa State in the Sweet 16.
“As a senior captain, I spoke at a banquet, so I told all these people in this room that we’re going to win our final six games; we’re going to go 19-11, and then we’re going to go win in the NCAA tournament to make some noise and prove that we belong,” Farnham said. “The point of that story is as bad as it looks now for Illinois, this team needs to understand that, ‘Hey, we can do this.’ Somebody needs to be the catalyst inside that locker room, besides the coaching staff, and say, ‘This isn’t happening anymore. Get on my back.’ ”
Champaign native Daniel Borup woke up earlier than usual on Thursday, around 6:30 a.m.
Not because the 22-year-old engineering mechanics major at Illinois was nervous about singing the national anthem before Thursday’s game.
The Urbana University High graduate had a presentation he had to give during a class. He wore the same suit to class that he wore to sing in and cheer in during the game.
“I didn’t bring a change of clothes,” he said with a laugh.
Borup sang the national anthem before the Illinois-Missouri game in St. Louis this year, and said he has performed the anthem about 14 or 15 times at various sporting events at Illinois during his time there, including the men’s basketball game against Gardner-Webb on Nov. 25.
“I’m going to be excited,” Borup said while sitting in an A section seat behind the Indiana bench before the game. “It’s going to be fun. This is the first time I’ve ever done it for a sellout at Assembly Hall. I’m hoping to kick things off right.”
McKennon Biers was easy to spot before and during the game. The Orange Krush Foundation President was decked out in a full-length orange suit, replete with orange slacks and orange blazer.
“I try to bring it out once a year,” Biers said of his attire. “It’s always fun, especially for prime-time games, to do something a little special. The hardest part is I’ve been looking for one of these (suits) for about two years.”
For those wanting to mimic Biers’ style, he found his all-orange menswear at www.blazerdepot.com.
“I figured, well, I didn’t have much to lose,” Biers said. “I got lucky. It fit perfectly. I’m just trying to have fun with it.”
Biers was eager since ESPN televised the game, chatting up play-by-play man Joe Tessitore before the game.
“Not that we need an excuse, but it’s another excuse to go crazy,” Biers said. “I think there is a lot of extra hype. It’s not every night there’s the No. 1 team here, and I think people realize the opportunity that comes along with that.”
The 20-year-old junior accounting major from Mendota said watching Illinois lose four straight home games before Thursday’s win had not hindered the morale of the Orange Krush. But it is tough for Biers and other students to witness the struggles Illinois has had on its home court at times this season.
“It’s never easy when you’re losing,” Biers said. “We remain optimistic. There’s still plenty of things to get excited about. It’s kind of a challenge for us to keep the environment exciting.”
Derrick Burson is a busy man any time Illinois hosts a men’s basketball game.
More so on Thursday.
Burson, the sports information director for men’s basketball, said about 175 media credentials were issued for Thursday’s game, the most since Michigan State visited in 2010.
“That was more because of the (ESPN) GameDay operations,” Burson said of the Spartans playing at Assembly Hall in a game televised on a Saturday night. “They brought a separate truck.”
With the game televised on ESPN — the first time the worldwide leader in sports descended on Champaign for a game this season — a large majority of those credentials were given to ESPN crew members. The Georgia Tech game was televised on ESPN2 while Eastern Kentucky brought ESPNU to town.
Burson said the average credentials he has dealt with all season is around 125. Crews for ESPN started setting up equipment at Assembly Hall around 8 a.m. on Tuesday. He anticipated the baselines to be filled to the brim with the extra cameras from ESPN and other TV stations at the game.
“Indiana wasn’t here last year, so I can’t compare,” Burson said, “but it’s certainly more (media) than they’ve brought in the last few years. It makes for a longer game day, and it’s a busier week, but it’s fun to have a lot of people here.”