UI 74, UIC 60: Notebook

UI 74, UIC 60: Notebook

CHICAGO — Growing up in Rantoul, John Giuliani’s family had Illinois season tickets. He was always a big fan.

And once he became an extraordinary success in his professional life as the CEO of ValueClick, the Illinois graduate knew he wanted to give back monetarily to his alma mater and favorite team.

“I’ve always felt like I wanted to give back and help support the program. I knew when we got around to renovating the Assembly Hall, which is now the State Farm Center, that I would be a part of that,” Giuliani said from his courtside seat at the United Center on Saturday during Illinois’ 74-60 win against UIC.

It was announced Friday that the 52-year-old donated $5 million to the project and what will be known as the John Giuliani Family Traditions Club. It will be the largest premium seating space at State Farm Center.

“The level of the gift just comes from the athletic director (Mike Thomas) twisting my arm a little bit and encouraging me along the way. I’m proud to be a part of it,” Giuliani said.

Since Thomas and Illinois coach John Groce arrived in Champaign-Urbana, they’ve gotten to know Giuliani well, Groce speaking about the friendship he’s developed with the 1983 UI graduate.

“John’s an unbelievable guy, first of all, aside from the donation, which we’re so grateful for. His passion for the university, for athletics, is off the charts,” Groce said. “I’ve truly enjoyed getting to know him. He’s very visionary. He and I think a lot alike in terms of organization and culture and vision and how important mission is. The people that you have on your bus, John and I have had conversations about those. He’s extremely bright and a very passionate Illini man. I feel blessed to have a friendship with John; he’s a great human being.”

In turn, Giuliani is excited about the future of the Illinois athletic department under Thomas.

“I’m very happy with Mike. I think he has a great vision,” he said. “I love Coach Groce. When you look at the vision that Groce and Mike Thomas have for the program and the university, you definitely want to get behind them. I’m so happy to be a part of it.”

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There is one game remaining on the contract that requires Illinois to play UIC at least once every three years. One coach knows for sure he wants the series to continue.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” UIC coach Howard Moore said. “I think it’s great. It used to be years and years ago on the campuses. I doubt it’ll return to the campuses. At the same time, I think having this game every three years is significant for the state and Chicago. It’s a good deal. I think it’s great for both schools. We would definitely like to keep it going, and we’re in talks with that.”

On the other side, Groce was not as committed to continuing it. Groce said it would depend on a number of factors, a main one being the number of home games. He pointed out a stat that among Big Ten teams, only Michigan had played as many games away from home (six) as the Illini in the nonconference.

“The one thing we all want to continue to do is playing the game against Missouri that we had in St. Louis last weekend, and we want to play in Chicago. This is really important for us,” Groce said. “Who we play, whether it’s them, who that might be, we’ll continue to have discussions about that in terms of how that makes sense philosophically and how that all fits together.”

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When he got to the United Center on Saturday, Kevin Berardini went to will call and got a ticket. In the previous three years, the former Illinois walk-on entered the building with the team and sat on the bench in uniform.

“I was telling my parents how strange it was. It’s so bizarre,” Berardini said.

Berardini, who graduated from Illinois in May, decided to forgo his final year of eligibility at Illinois to play one season at Division II Pace University in New York while working on his MBA.

It’s not going as well as planned.

“It started out OK. I’ve got a torn labrum in my hip. We didn’t realize it until about October,” Berardini said. “I’ve been trying to gut my way through it. I’ve been shut down for about the last five weeks, trying to work back into it.”

A 6-foot guard, Berardini has played in seven games with five starts, averaging 6.6 points in about 25 minutes a game.

“It’s great being in New York. I’m working on an MBA, so all things considered it’s going pretty well,” he said. “New York is a little too expensive. I enjoy being in New York City; there’s such a cool energy about it.”

Berardini has kept tabs on his former team while living in the Big Apple. He’s got another year of his master’s program after this year and plans to coach as a grad assistant next season.

“I had to come see my guys. It’s exciting to watch them grow,” Berardini said. “I was talking to Coach a little bit, and I think this is a really exciting group to watch develop.”

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From his home in Atlanta last week, Kiwane Garris watched as Tracy Abrams stepped to the free throw line as Illinois trailed Missouri by a point with 4.6 seconds remaining. He was in a similar situation 20 years earlier against the Tigers in St. Louis. Garris and the Illini were tied with no time remaining in the second overtime. He missed both free throws, and the Illini would lose in the third overtime.

“I was thinking about my free throws. I was in the same spot,” Garris said from his seat behind the Illinois bench Saturday. “I was just hoping he would make them. I didn’t want him to be like me.”

Abrams came through in Illinois’ one-point victory against the Tigers, the first UI win in the Braggin’ Rights series since 2008.

“It was good to see. It was a great game. I love watching it,” Garris said. “I was at home watching it with my 6-year-old. I love that game. It reminds me of the games we had, back and forth.”

After an extensive professional playing career abroad, Garris now works with aspiring basketball players in Atlanta in a variety of different areas.

“I’m training kids ages 5-18 in basketball and life and just trying to give kids who are interested in playing basketball a chance to succeed and get on a team, an AAU team, a school team or wherever it is they want to play,” Garris said.