AUSTIN, Texas — Sam McLaurin transferred to Illinois last spring with the goal of helping the Illini reach the NCAA tournament. Playing in today’s game against Colorado will be the highlight to this point of the Coastal Carolina transfer’s career. Until then, he’s already got one favorite tournament memory.
“Getting that police escort to the gym, that’s pretty awesome,” he said after the team arrived at the Frank Erwin Center guided by local officers Thursday.
McLaurin twice played postseason basketball with the Chanticleers. In 2010, Coastal Carolina played at Alabama-Birmingham. The following year the Chanticleers played at Alabama.
“They always sent us to Alabama, so it’s nice coming to a city like Austin and enjoying the experience,” he said.
As far as his experience in his lone season with the Illini, McLaurin is pleased.
“I couldn’t have imagined it being this good. I’m a part of what the team has been able to do, and that’s what I wanted to do,” he said. “I wanted to come in and make an impact and help get the team to a tournament. We’re here; now it’s time to win some more games.”
At this time last year, Brandon Paul was in Texas, living it up on spring break with buddies after the Illini were left out of the postseason.
“I had a good time,” he said.
He’s back a year later, though the board shorts and beach have given way to basketball shorts and a hardwood floor.
“That was fun last year, to just kind of get away from everything after what happened last season, but I’m excited for this,” Paul said. “These are the moments as a college basketball player that you dream to be a part of. Now that we’re here, it’s a blessing, and we’re going to make the most of it.”
During breaks between practice sessions, Illinois players and coaches watched Thursday’s NCAA tournament action inside their locker room.
They’re pulling for Big Ten teams they beat up on not long ago.
“It’s one of the toughest conferences, and it’s tough to beat those teams. You see it all in our league, and you should be prepared come tournament time,” Tracy Abrams said. “I’m rooting for all our teams, wish them the best of luck. I’m just kind of glad we won’t see any of them for a while.”
The Pac-12 guys are doing the same thing.
While the Big Ten was regarded as the best conference in the country, the Pac-12 teams feel like they were slighted in terms of seeding for the NCAA tournament.
UCLA, the top seed at the conference tournament, was given a No. 6 seed. Oregon, which tied the Bruins for the regular season title and won the conference tournament, was a 12 seed. Arizona (6), California (12) and Colorado (10) were all seeded low.
“For Oregon to get a 12 seed, that’s kind of wild,” Colorado guard Spencer Dinwiddie said. “I think that’s wild especially considering they were ranked going into the tournament or they had just dropped out of the Top 25.
“Validating our conference is a big thing. We understand the Pac-12 has been down, and now that we’re gaining traction, people are still overlooking us. Beating a Big Ten team, which is the best conference in the country, would do wonders for our conference.”
The Pac-12 (3-0) and Big Ten (2-0) were perfect Thursday, highlighted by Oregon’s upset of Oklahoma State and Cal’s upset of UNLV.
The trip to Austin is a homecoming of sorts for Colorado forward Andre Roberson. The Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year played his high school ball about an hour south in San Antonio.
The junior is expecting to have plenty of friends and family in attendance today.
“His dad told us half the state of Texas is going to be here, so we welcome that,” guard Askia Booker said.
Roberson wanted to stay in-state to play his college ball, but the programs in Texas didn’t show much interest. He committed to Colorado when the Buffaloes were still members of the Big 12 with Texas and Texas A&M.
“I was kind of a late bloomer. I didn’t really get recruited until after junior year,” he said. “The big schools didn’t come until I started playing in high school that season. I kind of took that as disrespect, just kind of recruiting me late. I felt like going to another Big 12 school in this conference and kind of getting back at them.”
Roberson isn’t the only member of his family playing in the NCAA tournament. His sister, Arielle, is a redshirt freshman forward on the Buffaloes’ women’s team. They open NCAA tournament play Saturday at home against Kansas.
“Both programs are up and rising,” Andre Roberson said. “I just kind of gave her a little tip of what we did last year, and she definitely took it well.”
Roberson said his parents will be in Austin for his game today, and they’re planning to make the trip to Boulder on Saturday to watch his sister.
Austin is a city known for its nightlife. Pacific coach Bob Thomason, whose team plays No. 2 seed Miami in today’s opener at the Erwin Center, took in Sixth Street on Wednesday night.
Thomason, who will retire this season after 25 seasons, gladly didn’t see any familiar faces.
“I did walk down Sixth Street last night, and I didn’t realize how many bars they had,” he said. “But I didn’t see any of my guys there, so we’re off to a good start.”
In today’s second session at the Erwin Center, South Regional games pitting UCLA against Minnesota and Florida against Northwestern State will play out.
UCLA coach Ben Howland told a story during Thursday’s media session linking his program with Minnesota’s.
Legendary UCLA coach John Wooden took the Bruins’ job in 1948, but it wasn’t his first choice. The former Purdue great wanted to coach at Minnesota. Wooden was expecting a call from Minnesota about the coaching job, but a storm in Minnesota knocked out the phone lines. While Wooden waited, UCLA called and he accepted its offer.
Minnesota called an hour later, and Wooden informed the school he already had given UCLA his word.
“How different history would have been written if that storm hadn’t occurred at that time. It’s worked out well, obviously, for the UCLA program,” Howland said. “His wife, Nellie, wanted to be in Minnesota because she wanted to be close to Mom and Dad. She wanted to stay close to her roots. Our good luck.”
Former Illinois football coach Ron Zook’s name was mentioned during Thursday’s briefings. It had nothing to do with the usage of timeouts.
Gators coach Billy Donovan was asked about the parallels between the Texas and Florida athletic programs, and he talked about working closely with the coaches from other programs, including football.
“I’ve been at Florida with (Steve) Spurrier and around Zook and Urban (Meyer) and now Will (Muschamp), and I’ve had great relationships with all those guys,” he said. “That’s the one thing I find enjoyable about Florida is the people that represent Florida, when Florida’s involved, there’s passion regardless of what sport it is.”