CHAMPAIGN — Prior to Sunday’s game, various communities in central Illinois were devastated by storm damage caused by tornadoes that ripped through the Midwest.
Gifford, Hoopeston, Pesotum and Villa Grove were among the towns in the Champaign area that were hit hard by the storms.
“We’re the luckiest guys in the world. I get to coach a kid’s game, and these guys get to play it, but our thoughts go out to East Peoria, Gifford and Hoopeston and Washington and Pekin and all of the places that were affected today by the tornado and inclement weather,” Illinois coach John Groce said after his team’s 81-55 win against Bradley. “Our thoughts are with those families and those people. It kind of puts everything in perspective for you very quickly when something like that happens.”
A moment of silence was observed prior to the game for those affected by the storms.
The damage was extensive in the Peoria area, too, near the Bradley campus. Washington, Ill., was devastated, as well as many other surrounding communities.
“It’s gut-wrenching to hear. It’s people you know and people you care about,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “I think the entire state’s this way, but I really feel Peoria is a really tight-knit community. It’s not a big city, it’s kind of a small city with a lot of population. Everybody knows everybody. Everybody’s going to have to pitch in and help each other out right now, which over the test of time, that’s been great at that. You’re just sick about hearing the news, that’s for sure. It puts basketball into perspective. We’ve got a lot of things basketball-wise we need to address, but there are greater tragedies in the world than not blocking out, that’s for sure.”
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Sam Maniscalco once helped Bradley upset Illinois during a Thanksgiving tournament game in Las Vegas. A couple seasons later, the point guard was wearing an Illini uniform, quarterbacking Bruce Weber’s offense.
He was at State Farm Center on Sunday, trying to remain as neutral as possible. He wore gray Bradley sweat pants with blue Illinois shorts underneath.
“It’s fun. It’s unique. I got to play at both schools. I don’t know why these two schools don’t play every year. It’ll draw a crowd for two programs that are competitive and get after it,” Maniscalco said. “I’m sure guys like me and the other guys from Illinois who grew up in Chicago had a different perspective and more of an appreciation than the out-of-state guys. I went into it with the mind-set of it being a rivalry game and approached it that way for sure.”
Maniscalco is currently living in Chicago and working in medical sales, while also dabbling in some sports media. He’s continued to keep tabs on both programs and has former college and AAU teammates on the Illinois roster in Tracy Abrams, Nnanna Egwu and Joseph Bertrand.
“(Illinois) looks good. They’ve got some guys who can spread the floor with Rayvonte (Rice), and Jon (Ekey) adds another element. He can step outside and shoot, and he’s got that sneaky athleticism. He doesn’t look the part. Nnanna’s active, too,” Maniscalco said. “At this point in the season, it’s such a long journey, such a long process, you’re just trying to get better each day and each game.”
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Mike Shaw will soon have the same distinction as Maniscalco: a guy who suited up for both the Braves and the Illini.
The former Illinois forward, who transferred to Bradley during this past offseason, attended Sunday’s game and sat near the Bradley bench. He’s sitting out this season per NCAA transfer rules.
Shaw visited with former teammates and coaches on the court prior to Sunday’s game.
“He’s doing pretty good. He’s got a positive attitude about it. He was glad to be back here,” Abrams said. “It was great to see him, and he’s doing pretty well. I’m happy for him.”
Ford has been pleased with what he’s seen from the 6-foot-8 forward in practice to this point.
“Mike’s doing fantastic. Mike is a such a good kid, and he’s really been impactful for our locker room this year. That can be hard when you’re redshirting and you know you’re not going to play,” Ford said. “He’s been good in every practice, and we stat every practice, and he’s far and away our leading rebounder. That alone will show you that he’ll be a significant part of our program. When you’re leading in rebounding in practice by a large margin, generally you can get that done in the games, too. We’re excited about Mike. We’re excited to have him next year on the floor.”
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Since committing to Illinois earlier this month, Simeon forward D.J. Williams has learned just how excited Illinois fans are to have him join the program when he graduates in 2015.
His Twitter followers have increased, and he has heard regularly from Illini diehards.
“It’s been great. They show a lot of love,” said Williams, who attended his first Illini game since committing. “The Orange Krush is crazy about their team. They show a lot of love about football, basketball, all their sports.”
Williams has already begun recruiting for Illinois himself, pitching his future college destination to St. Rita 2015 guard Charles Matthews, his best friend.
“I talk to him pretty much every day,” Williams said. “I try not to bother him too much about it, but of course, I’m joking with him some, telling him to come with me. He’s real cool with Jaylon (Tate) and Kendrick (Nunn), too.”
Another 2015 target, Plainfield East guard Aaron Jordan, was also in attendance Sunday. The 6-4 guard has been a regular.
Centennial’s Michael Finke, who signed with Illinois last week, was also in attendance.
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Groce was concerned about containing Bradley guard Walt Lemon Jr. entering Sunday’s game. The 6-3 senior entered averaging more than 18 points, and he’s the Missouri Valley’s active career scoring leader with more than 1,200 points.
The Illini limited Lemon to 12 points on 4-of-15 shooting.
“The coaches prepared a great game plan for us, guys were aggressive on him. Obviously, he’s a good player and we just stuck with our game plan,” Abrams said.
Groce was careful not to give away too many defensive secrets.
“We’re not going to tell you everything, we’ve still got some games to play,” he said.
Illinois used multiple perimeter defenders on Lemon, leading Ford to applaud the effort.
“They basically trapped him on ball screens, which we thought they were going to do, and we worked on in the one day we had to get ready for it,” Ford said. “We expected them to double team him, which they did.”
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It was more than the perimeter defenders who helped stymie Lemon. Egwu controlled the paint for the Illini, blocking three shots and altering plenty of others.
“Egwu blocked a few shots and we haven’t seen that kind of size and length and as soon as he did that, we did an awful job of finishing in traffic,” Ford said.
The 6-11, 250-pound Egwu has 13 blocks through four games this season and he did his work Sunday committing just two fouls.
“I think he’s one of the best defensive (centers), really a forward, that I’ve coached in 19 years, and I’ve coached some pretty good ones, I’ve been really blessed,” Groce said. “He’s just so versatile, he can do so many things. You don’t see many guys his size and that weight move with that type of mobility like he does. I think that certainly gives us the luxury to tweak and wrinkle things within game plans that makes us a little more difficult to play against.”