UI 77, Chicago State 53: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — When the freshmen walk down the sideline to check into games, they roll past Jerry Hester, who’s seated near the bench. When the former Illini looks at their eyes, he doesn’t see any fear or apprehension in the rookies.
“They all look confident. Part of that is the way high school basketball is today, especially for guys like Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate. They’ve played on a national stage as juniors in high school,” Hester said ahead of Friday’s game against Chicago State at State Farm Center. “For them to get to college and play on this stage isn’t much of a shock for them as it was for a guy like me or even the guys before me. They look comfortable, but they’re still learning, and they have to understand it’s a different game.”
The UI freshmen have adjusted well to the college game. Tate entered Friday’s game leading the Big Ten in assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7) while Malcolm Hill was leading the team in free throws attempted.
✰ ✰ ✰
The team as a whole, Hester said, is in good shape. The most important thing he notices is there has been progress in each game.
“I think they’re on the right track. Having so many young players, the one thing that’s encouraging is every game they’ve gotten better — from the exhibition games to now. It’s good to continue to see that progression,” Hester said.
The young players have played an important role, but it’s been the veteran Illini who have carried the load.
“Those guys have done a great job of being consistent,” Hester said. “That’s what you really like to see on a team with so many new players. It’s good to see Nnanna (Egwu) and Tracy (Abrams) and Joe (Bertrand) step up. (Jon) Ekey has been a good addition and Rayvonte Rice, those guys transferring in and stepping up and been good.”
✰ ✰ ✰
Big Ten play is still a little more than a month away, but Hester has kept an eye on the happenings around the league. The performance of Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky this week against North Dakota caught his eye.
The Naperville native scored a school-record 43 points in the Badgers’ 103-85 win. It was the first time eclipsing 100 points during the Bo Ryan era in Madison.
“The league is going to be tough; it’s going to be really good. You have a guy like Kaminsky score 43 points, that’s tough. And that can happen on any team on any given night,” Hester said. “Michigan State is obviously tough. Michigan lost to Iowa State, but Iowa State is very tough at home and that was (Mitch) McGary’s first game back, and they’re still adjusting without Trey Burke. Once conference comes around, Ohio State is going to be Ohio State. They don’t have the superstar they’ve been accustomed to. They’re going to play together and be tough, especially on the defensive end. Top to bottom, Northwestern is a good team, too. It’s going to be tough all the way through, that’s for sure.”
✰ ✰ ✰
Like most Illinois fans, Hester paid attention last week as Cliff Alexander pulled a head fake on Illinois before announcing he would sign with Kansas in front of a live national television audience on ESPNU. He was also surprised with Quentin Snider decommitting and signing with Louisville.
But like most Illinois fans, Hester has moved on.
“They aren’t on the bus. You wish them well because you never wish anything bad upon anybody,” Hester said. “We have a good team. We’ll move forward, and we’ll continue to be good and get better.”
✰ ✰ ✰
After spending a month in Austria playing the first professional basketball of his career, former Illini D.J. Richardson is back stateside and attended his first game of the season at State Farm Center on Friday.
“My agent should have another job for me soon; I was just on a one-month contract. One of their main guys got hurt, and they asked me to come out there until be got back healthy,” Richardson said.
Having spent some time abroad with the Illini entering his junior season, Richardson adjusted well to life overseas.
“The Italy trip helped me out with it a lot, letting me know what life is like over there,” he said. “It was great. Everybody on the team spoke German and English, so the team was great. It was good to get out there and get my professional career started.”
If the next assignment calls for him to head back to Europe, Richardson would welcome the opportunity.
“I would love to do it. The food was good; there wasn’t too much to complain about,” he said. “The main thing is I want to be back out on the basketball court playing.”
✰ ✰ ✰
While living in Austria, Richardson regularly stayed awake until 4 a.m. watching Illini games on his computer.
“They’ve been doing pretty good,” he said. “They look like they’re listening to Coach. They just have to shoot the ball a little better. They’ll get that figured out. They’ve got some young guys playing well, and they’ll keep getting better.”