CHAMPAIGN — Should Illinois reach the NCAA tournament, the Illini will be without assistant coach Jamall Walker, who on Friday was suspended by college basketball’s governing body for two postseason games. You might recall Illinois was without Walker for a game early last season when the 36-year-old coach missed the win at Hawaii while his wife Rebekah gave birth to their son Braylon in Urbana.
The circumstances surrounding the Hawaii game and the NCAA tournament games Walker will miss are different. When Walker missed the game at Hawaii, Illinois requested and was granted a waiver from the NCAA to elevate then-special assistant to the coach Brandon Miller to Walker’s chair, allowing the Illini to have three coaches alongside John Groce. That won’t be the case the next time Illinois makes the NCAA tournament as long as Walker is on staff.
Let’s say Illinois makes the NCAA tournament this season. Groce will have Dustin Ford and Paris Parham on the bench barking out instructions to the players during play and in the huddle during timeouts. Special assistant Ryan Pedon will be on the bench, too, but he can’t instruct players in his role. It’s not a crushing blow for Illinois, more of an inconvenience. There will be a missing voice and set of eyes in the halftime locker room making adjustments of a win-or-go-home game. It’s a tough deal for Illinois but something it could overcome.
The NCAA said in its release Friday that Walker “made inappropriate contact with a game official and verbally confronted the game officials and a police officer following Illinois’ loss to Miami (Fla.) on March 24 in the third round of the East Region.”
In that game, with Illinois trailing the second-seeded Hurricanes by two points with 42 seconds left, a missed shot by D.J. Richardson was knocked out of bounds by Miami’s Kenny Kadji, but Miami was awarded the ball and went on to separate itself from Illinois in the final minute. That led to the NCAA passing a new rule this offseason allowing officials to use replay to determine possession in the final two minutes of a game and in overtime.
The officials blew the call, but in recent years the NCAA has been attempting to strengthen its stance against coaches going rogue on officials. Kansas coach Bill Self was reprimanded and fined this offseason after damaging a scorer’s table during the tournament. In the women’s game, Baylor coach Kim Mulkey was suspended one NCAA tournament game after she criticized officials following the Bears’ loss to Louisville in the Sweet 16.
There’s a debate among Illinois basketball enthusiasts about which team was better: Lou Henson’s 1989 Flyin’ Illini or the 2005 team led by Dee, Deron and Luther. Stephen Bardo addresses that and plenty more in his new book, “The Flyin’ Illini,” which will be released Nov. 1.
“I’ll always think my team is better just because I’m a competitor,” said Bardo, a guard on the 1989 team that reached the Final Four.
The book, which celebrates the 25th anniversary of that team, tells some behind-the-scenes stories about the group that took the college basketball world by storm.
“It’s something I really wanted to do because I thought Illini fans should have a historical take on that team and I wanted my college teammates to understand and enjoy the impact that we had on college basketball. I think with the book coming out they’ll start to really understand how special that team really was,” said Bardo, an analyst with BTN. “I try to give behind-the-scenes stuff about personalities. I talk about the games, but it’s more trying to give insight to some of the travel things we did, some of the cliques in terms of who got along with whom.
“I try to give certain examples about where I’ve been around the country and around the world and I get stopped by people who remember that team.”
One person Bardo did not get along with: Henson.
“We didn’t get along when I was playing, but now I have a better understanding of him and why it was that way,” he said.
And while he will always maintain that his team was better than Bruce Weber’s 2005 team that also captivated the college basketball world, Bardo acknowledges there are some similarities between the two.
“Both teams were so competitive,” he said. “That ’05 team was unbelievable in terms of their competitiveness and almost going undefeated in the regular season and then having a run to the NCAA championship game. I think our competitiveness was very similar to theirs because they’re the most successful team in Illinois history. The majority of the guys were from the state of Illinois and they took pride in representing the state similar in the way we did.”
When Sam McLaurin committed to Illinois in the spring of 2012 after transferring from Coastal Carolina, he did so in a colorful way, using an expletive via Twitter. “(Screw) it, I’m going to Illinois,” McLaurin wrote back then.
So it’s no surprise that the charismatic big man announced his first professional deal in the same manner on Thursday.
“(Screw) it, I’m going to Finland,” McLaurin wrote on the social media site.
The 6-foot-8 forward/center, who averaged 3.8 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in his one season at Illinois, signed a deal to join Finnish club Korihait for the upcoming season.
McLaurin leaves later this month to begin his professional career. He joins Brandon Paul, who signed with Russian club Nizhny Novgorod, as members of the 2012-13 Illini team to sign professional contracts.
When he was helping his French club Nanterre to a France Pro-A championship last season, former Illini guard Trent Meacham played alongside a former Ohio State star, David Lighty. Lighty, the league’s MVP last season, is trying his hand in the NBA this season, but Meacham will be joined in Paris by another former Buckeyes star, Deshaun Thomas.
Thomas, who was drafted 58th overall in June’s NBA draft by the San Antonio Spurs, passed on going to training camp with the Western Conference champions because a roster spot was not guaranteed. He will report to France soon to help Nanterre in its quest to win a second championship.
“Looking forward to a great opportunity to play in France with Nanterre this year. Appreciate all the good work with San Antonio looking forward with playing with them next year but couldn’t pass it up,” Thomas wrote on Twitter after his signing.
The Big Ten announced last week that the league led the nation in attendance during the 2012-13 basketball season. It was the 37th consecutive season in which the Big Ten trumped the rest of the country.
The Big Ten’s average attendance was 13,114, which was 2,400 more than the Big East, which was second.
Seven Big Ten programs, including Illinois, were ranked in the Top 25 nationally. The Illini averaged 15,013 per game, which was 17th in the country. Indiana was fifth (17,412), Wisconsin (16,843) was seventh, Ohio State (16,524) was ninth, Michigan State (14,341) was 18th, Iowa (13,625) was 21st and Minnesota (12,580) was 23rd.
Kentucky, which averaged 23,099, led the nation in average attendance.
Additionally, the Big Ten tournament at Chicago’s United Center set a conference record for total attendance with 124,543 fans attending games during the four-day event. All six sessions of the tournament, which averaged 20,757, were sold out. The previous record was set in 2001, when 109,769 watched at the United Center.
ESPN’s “College GameDay” released its schedule for the upcoming season last week, with one Big Ten stop on the docket.
The Jan. 25 game between Michigan and Michigan State in East Lansing will host the ESPN crew of Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Digger Phelps and Jalen Rose. The in-state rivals are expected to each be ranked in the Top 10 when preseason polls are released.
Illinois has hosted “College GameDay” once, in 2009 when the Illini upset the fifth-ranked Spartans. Michigan State last hosted in 2011 when Illinois visited the Breslin Center.
This season’s tour will open with two stops Jan. 18. The crew will spend the morning in Philadelphia for the inter-city clash between Temple and LaSalle, and that evening they will be in Storrs, Conn., for the game between Louisville and UConn.
The week after the East Lansing visit, the show will be at the Carrier Dome as Duke visits new ACC rival Syracuse. Gonzaga’s trip to Memphis on Feb. 8 will be a stop, as will Florida’s visit to Kentucky the following week. On Feb. 22, the network will wait to decide which Pac-12 tilt to attend. The options are Arizona at Colorado, or UCLA at Stanford.
Kansas will visit Oklahoma State on March 1 in a matchup between the Big 12’s top teams, and the tour will finish with North Carolina’s visit to Duke on March 8.