CHICAGO — On the wish list of many sneaker aficionados this Christmas was a pair of the elusive retro Air Jordan XI Gamma Blue shoe that was released with limited availability and a greater demand Dec. 21.
Illinois freshman Kendrick Nunn, a self-professed sneaker head, said he unwrapped lots of boxes of shoes while spending Christmas at home with his family on the South Side. But his favorite pair was the Gamma Blue Jordan XIs. And he didn’t have to camp out overnight or deal with any of the violence associated with the release of the shoes that so many across the country did.
“I’ve got a close friend of mine who got them for me,” Nunn said. “I’m a big shoe guy, so to get those was real big for me.”
A bigger thrill for the Simeon product comes Saturday when he takes the United Center floor for the first time when he and the Illini take on Illinois-Chicago (1 p.m., BTN) for the final nonconference game of the season.
Of all the venues and all the locations throughout the country that Nunn has had the chance to play, he’s never had the opportunity to play inside the arena that sits 12 miles northwest of Simeon’s campus and features a 12-foot bronze statue of Michael Jordan outside of it.
“It’s a great opportunity to play in an NBA arena in my city, Chicago,” said Nunn, one of five members of the active Illinois roster who call Chicagoland home. “There’s a lot expected, but I think we can go out and play well.”
In recent games, playing well is what the 6-foot-3 guard has done, particularly on the defensive end.
In the loss to Oregon on Dec. 14 in Portland, Nunn scored two points and had two steals. In last week’s win against No. 23 Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis, Nunn played a career-high 20 minutes, bagged a three-pointer and registered three more steals.
“He’s gotten better defensively, that’s the biggest thing,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He’s made a lot of progress, certainly from where he started. Some of the habits he needed to be able to build in order to defend in our system, he’s getting better. I’m excited about his growth and development.”
It hasn’t been a smooth ride for Nunn to get where he is now in the Illinois rotation. In games against Jacksonville State, Valparaiso, Chicago State and UNLV, Nunn played fewer than 10 minutes. Part of that was because the guys ahead of him in the rotation, Rayvonte Rice and Joseph Bertrand, were playing so well.
It also was because Nunn wasn’t playing up to the standard set for him by the Illinois staff at either end of the floor. For a freshman who was a 15-point scorer in high school, finding a niche that doesn’t include putting the ball in the basket early in a college career can be a challenge.
“It’s a hard adjustment, but I’ve been patient and taking my time and letting everything come to me,” Nunn said. “I think it was just a part of getting on the floor and getting into rhythm. Playing good defense has allowed me to stay on the floor, and that’s helped the team.”
Playing stout perimeter defense appears to be Nunn’s calling at this point in his career, a role he’s embraced in recent weeks.
“Defense is a big thing at Illinois,” he said. “There are a lot of guys who can play on the offensive end, so I set myself apart by playing tough defense.”
To this point, Nunn’s greatest memories of the United Center involve attending Bulls games to watch another former Simeon star, Derrick Rose, in front of the hometown fans.
“That was always big for me to see him playing there,” Nunn said of the former NBA MVP.
He’s hoping to create some new memories Saturday against the Flames, with more friends and family on hand to watch than he can count or accommodate.
“I’ve heard from a lot of people. They’ve all been contacting me, telling me they’re going to be there,” Nunn said.
They better not be counting on Nunn to get them in the building. His allotment of tickets has already been spoken for.
“They keep asking for tickets, but I tell them all the same thing: ‘I’ve only got four (tickets),’ and they can’t have those,” Nunn said.
Maybe if they can score him another pair of elusive Jordans, then Nunn might be able to make room for them.
Saturday’s game will be the 23rd nontournament contest for the Illini in the House That Michael Built. A look at the previous 22 matchups:
No. 6 Duke 70,
Dec. 4, 1994
Blue Devils were led by the freshman trio of Trajan Langdon, Steve Wojciechowski and Ricky Price, who combined for 36 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the Fighting Illini/First of America Shootout.
No. 14 Illinois 83,
No. 24 Cal 69
Dec. 23, 1995
Lou Henson’s last Illini squad moved to 9-0 for the first time in six years behind 23 points from Kiwane Garris and 12 apiece from Jerry Gee and Richard Keene.
No. 24 UCLA 63
Dec. 21, 1996
Thanks to five three-pointers from Matt Heldman, who scored 23 points, Lon Kruger’s first Illinois team forced 23 UCLA turnovers to move to 9-2. Bryant Notree limited Bruins star Charles O’Bannon to 12 points, five below his average.
No. 17 Clemson 61
Dec. 13, 1997
Jerry Gee scored 13 points and grabbed 10 rebounds, Jerry Hester broke a shooting slump to total 15 points and Matt Heldman went 14 of 14 from the free throw line in a 17-point performance against Rick Barnes’ Tigers.
Dec. 5, 1998
The Illini moved to 6-2 thanks to a 16-point, five-rebound, three-steal performance from Cleotis Brown. Despite eight turnovers, Cory Bradford managed 11 points for the Illini, and Victor Chukwudebe pulled down a game-high 10 rebounds.
No. 17 Duke 72,
No. 16 Illinois 69
Nov. 30, 1999
The Blue Devils got 22 points from Chris Carrawell and clinched the victory when Frank Williams’ three-pointer in the closing seconds clanked off the rim. Williams and Bradford each had 14 points for the Illini, while Duke got 17 from Jason Williams and 12 from Shane Battier.
No. 20 Illinois 84,
No. 8 Kansas 70
Dec. 18, 1999
After washing his hands at halftime, Cory Bradford scored 19 of his 21 points in the second half for Illinois’ first win against a Top 10 team in nearly three years. Frank Williams added 15 points, and Marcus Griffin had 16 points and 12 boards.
No. 5 Illinois 81,
No. 7 Arizona 73
Dec. 16, 2000
In a rematch of the Maui Invitational title game won by then-top-ranked Arizona 24 days earlier, Cory Bradford set the NCAA record by making a three-pointer in his 74th consecutive game while Lute Olson questioned Lucas Johnson’s sanity.
No. 5 Illinois 94,
Dec. 8, 2001
Frank Williams, who clinched the victory with a steal in the closing seconds, scored 25 points and attempted more free throws — he was 18 of 24 — than the Razorbacks, who got 29 points from Brandon Dean and 28 from Jannero Pargo.
No. 15 Illinois 70, Temple 54
Dec. 14, 2002
With legendary coach John Cheney home battling pneumonia, the Owls shot 28.8 percent from the floor. The Illini used a 25-point, 11-rebound effort by Brian Cook, while freshman Dee Brown scored 15 points to go along with five rebounds and three assists.
No. 20 Illinois 73, Northwestern 61
Feb. 22, 2003
Dee Brown had 18 points, five rebounds, five assists and five steals as Bill Self notched the 200th win of his coaching career. Roger Powell added a career-high 20 points in front of a pro-Illini crowd.
No. 11 Illinois 84, Arkansas 61
Dec. 6, 2003
Dee (13 points, six assists), Deron (17 points, 10 assists) and Luther (11 points)
all reached double figures under first-year coach Bruce Weber. James Augustine (12 points, 12 rebounds) and Nick Smith (10 points) also reached double figures.
No. 20 Illinois 75, UIC 60
Dec. 29, 2003
The Illini blocked 11 shots and posted 16 fast-break points, led by Roger Powell (17 points, seven rebounds), James Augustine (13 points, nine rebounds) and Luther Head (13 points, six rebounds).
No. 1 Illinois 83, Oregon 66
Dec. 11, 2004
All five Illini starters reached double figures, led by Luther Head’s 23 on 8-of-10 shooting in front of a sold-out crowd for their 11th straight win at the UC. “They’ve got a chance to have a special year,” Oregon coach Ernie Kent said.
No. 12 Illinois 65, Xavier 62
Dec. 3, 2005
The Illini trailed by 15 early, but seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine carried the load, combining to score 43 points to lead the Illini rally. Illinois State transfer Marcus Arnold came off the bench to score seven points and grab six rebounds.
Illinois 71, UIC 66
Dec. 9, 2006
A 19-6 UIC run to start the second half saw Illinois’ 16-point lead drop to three, but Rich McBride (13 points) and Chester Frazier (10 points, six assists) helped the Illini escape the Flames’ upset bid.
No. 22 Arizona 78,
Illinois 72 (OT)
Dec. 8, 2007
Days after learning coach Lute Olson would be sidelined for the remainder of the season because of health issues, the Wildcats took advantage of poor free throw shooting by the Illini (10 of 22) to rally from a late seven-point deficit to win.
Illinois 76, Georgia 42
Dec. 6, 2008
Demetri McCamey (six assists, four rebounds, three steals) scored 13 of his game-high 19 points in the first eight minutes as the Illini hardly broke a sweat against the Bulldogs. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale each scored 14 points to go along with Dominique Keller’s 11.
Illinois 83 (OT)
Jan. 2, 2010
Illini rallied to erase a 21-point deficit, then needed a Dominique Keller three-pointer at the end of regulation to send the game into overtime, in which the Bulldogs erased an 83-80 Illinois deficit to win it on a layup by Elias Harris.
No. 12 Illinois 54
Dec. 18, 2010
One of the low points of the Bruce Weber era saw Illinois players walking off the court after the program’s first loss to UIC in 20 years with Illini fans showering the players and coaches with obscenities following the dismal performance.
No. 19 Illinois 48
Dec. 17, 2011
Nine months after beating the Rebels in the NCAA tournament, the Illini got 19 points from D.J. Richardson but were never competitive. Mike Moser had 17 points and 11 rebounds for UNLV, which handed 10-0 Illinois its first loss.
No. 12 Illinois 81, Auburn 79
Dec. 29, 2012
Chicagoan Tracy Abrams scored a career-high 27 points as the Illini bounced back from the loss a week earlier against Missouri — the first setback of the John Groce era. It was the first win at the United Center in four years for Illinois.