John Groce’s Illini play a basketball game Saturday afternoon. That’s news.
In a world where television dictates, the 4:15 p.m. date against Nebraska here follows five consecutive weekends in which UI contests were held on Sunday. In fact, before a snowstorm forced the Iowa-Nebraska game to be moved, there wasn’t a single Big Ten game slated last Saturday.
Sunday college games, once frowned upon, have been going on for decades. What has changed is the amount. When Lou Henson’s Flyin’ Illini captivated the nation in 1988-89, the entire Big Ten Conference had one Sunday event in November and December, and that was Iowa’s Christmastime participation in the Hawaiian Airlines Classic. Big Ten teams played three Sunday games that January, one of which was the 103-92 double-OT defeat of Georgia Tech that vaulted Illinois to No. 1. The league had five more Sunday games in February 1989.
Since the calendar flipped to 2013, the two-month scorecard shows 22 Big Ten games played on Sunday. That’s too many. From his Big Ten office, senior associate commissioner Mark Rudner calls it “a new reality” dating to the Big Ten’s first TV contract in 1990-91. But it isn’t entirely TV-related, even though money talks. The BTN joined four others — ABC, ESPN, CBS, Fox — in funneling $280 million to the 12 sharing members last year. Said Rudner:
“It’s obvious that the CBS games are typically played on Sunday, but the big factor affecting the schedules is the coaches’ insistence on having two days for preparation between conference games. If you have a game on Thursday, you can’t play again until Sunday. And if you have a game on Sunday, you can’t play again until Wednesday.”
Be sure to get there early
So here we are — finally — with a Saturday game. This is when college games should be played. The UI had the good sense to schedule Missouri in St. Louis and the Auburn game in Chicago on Saturdays in December when it is most convenient for fans.
But the combination of TV and coaches’ limitations left UI-Nebraska as only the second Saturday game in the UI’s conference season. And just to make it confusing, it’ll tip off at the odd time of 4:15 (what happened to 1 p.m. kickoffs/tipoffs?).
Thanks to several promotions, most recently a deal offering four Nebraska tickets for $50, it’ll be a sellout. Get there early because, 15 minutes prior to tipoff, five Illini seniors will be honored at their final home game. And the video scoreboard will help celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Assembly Hall with memorable displays before the game and during some of the timeouts.
Since confessions are good for the soul, it must be related that I arrived late for the opener in 1963 — Ray Gallivan, a backfield teammate of Red Grange, was our driver from Hammond, Ind. — and we didn’t see the first basket by Northwestern’s Rich Falk. Nor do I remember anything that happened during the 79-73 Illini win. What I recall is (1) looking up and wondering what was holding the roof and (2) trying to locate the car after leaving a round building.
By now, we’re all accustomed to the remarkable structure and can only imagine what it’ll look like in two or three years (renovation work is scheduled to begin a year from this spring).
— Speculation abounds on Illinois’ NCAA status, but a win Saturday should clinch an NCAA berth although we are advised to stay alert for upsets in conferences that would reduce the 37 at-large berths. If it stays at 37, the Illini are a cinch ... if they beat Nebraska (that’s two ifs).
— As presently constituted, Groce’s Illini would have no seniors and no sophomores (by eligibility) on next season’s squad if Joe Bertrand and Devin Langford hadn’t redshirted.
— Before you call the Gophers’ 77-73 upset of Indiana a fluke, consider: Previously slumping Minnesota flexed superior muscles on this night. Trevor Mbakwe dominated Cody Zeller on the block as Minnesota garnered 23 offensive rebounds, and the Gophers peppered the porous IU defense for 47 second-half points despite mediocre shooting (for the game, 42.9 percent and 4 of 20 from the arc). There’s something about these rabid home crowds that, unlike most other conferences, change the nature of Big Ten games. The league’s top five teams in the standings are 74-5 at home.
— Wonder how Gonzaga, the next No. 1, would like to wade into that 74-5 number. With Gonzaga grad Paul Klee moving to Denver, is there anyone left in Big Ten territory who believes the Zags could hold up in the death march around the Big Ten Conference? Or Butler? It’s impressive to defeat a quality opponent on a given night, and quite another to face Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin and Indiana in order, as Illinois did. Gonzaga played Illinois (and lost 85-74) and Kansas State back-to-back in December, but it has had easy sailing in a weak West Coast Conference since January.
— The seismic shift in Tim Beckman’s football staff will allow UI defensive coordinator Tim Banks, who formerly coached linebackers, and Beckman to combine their expertise in restructuring an uncommonly youthful secondary when spring football drills begin Tuesday. With shoulder-troubled Steve Hull moving to receiver, the Illini are without five key backfield members including multiyear starters at cornerback, Justin Green and Terry Hawthorne. JC transfers and freshmen will figure in heavily.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.