CHAMPAIGN — The donations keep pouring in toward the State Farm Center renovation project. The latest prominent alum to donate a sizable amount of money toward the venture was former Illinois All-America guard Mannie Jackson.
It was announced earlier in the week that the owner of the Harlem Globetrotters was donating $3 million toward the Hall of Fame room that will be a part of the completed project. Jackson was recognized for his donation at halftime of Saturday’s game against No. 15 Iowa.
“The renovation of the building is important. It’s going to help our recruiting,” Jackson said. “I think athletics is so important to the university and to the community generally, but it needs a place that represents the quality of players we want. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
Jackson has been one of the more prominent former Illinois players leading the charge in backing the renovation project from the outset. He’s formed a friendship with Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas, whom he credits with getting the project off the ground.
“People like Mike have to be leaders and have some sort of vision, a positive one and an aggressive one,” Jackson said. “I like Mike because you don’t get the great places without having great visions. He has that.”
On Friday night, Jackson attended Illinois’ team dinner at coach John Groce’s home. He used a portion of that time to address the squad, which is mired in a seven-game losing streak following Saturday’s 81-74 loss to No. 15 Iowa.
“No. 1, the message was you can’t quit. You’ve got to realize this is the time in life where they’re making their memories forever,” Jackson said. “I think about my own career and there’s not a week that goes by that I don’t think about the time I played at University of Illinois. They’re going to do the same thing 10, 20, 30 years from now. They want to be remembered as giving the best they could possibly give.”
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Former Illini Stephen Bardo was at State Farm Center on Saturday, calling his first Illinois game of the season for the BTN telecast.
“(BTN) felt bad I hadn’t done an Illinois game all year,” Bardo said. “It’s great to be back. They understand that I’m going to call the game like I see it, whether it’s Illinois playing or somebody else.”
This is Bardo’s first season calling games for BTN after spending the previous eight with ESPN. For the Chicago resident, the opportunity to stay in the Midwest for most assignments has been one of the perks of the new gig.
“I love it. To me, it’s better than I expected,” Bardo said. “You never know what you’re going to get when you make a change like that, and naturally you might think there’s a demotion from ESPN to Big Ten Network. That has not been the case at all. It’s been great.”
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Though he hadn’t called an Illini game yet this season, Bardo has seen enough of his alma mater to form an opinion about its struggles. He’s been on hand at State Farm Center viewing games as an observer and has seen much of the seven-game losing streak on television or while studying film in preparation for other games in the league.
“I think Illinois has one of the smallest margins for error in the Big Ten,” he said. “They don’t want to play like Northwestern, but it’s almost like they need to slow the thing down to give themselves a little better chance. They need three of four guys to score in double figures every night. If they don’t, they’re in trouble.”
As far as the rest of the league, Bardo is just as surprised as most of the Big Ten fans watching from home about how crazy some of the outcomes have been. Northwestern winning three straight on the road and five out of seven overall has been a shocker.
Ohio State losing four straight, Penn State winning at Ohio State and Nebraska losing just once at home have the former Flyin’ Illini point guard shaking his head.
“Never seen it like this. I’ve never seen teams that were perennial cellar dwellers getting momentum like they have on the road. It’s really unusual,” Bardo said. “Penn State is starting to play well. They play hard all the time and find a way to lose. Nebraska has only lost one game at home, and Northwestern is defying all odds. It’s been interesting, that’s for sure.”
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Illinois senior Jon Ekey was in and out of the game in the second half while dealing with leg cramps. After the game, Ekey left the floor following a nine-point, five-rebound effort.
Ekey missed badly on a pair of shots down the stretch while dealing with the cramps.
“Obviously, Jon doesn’t typically shoot airballs,” Groce said. “I thought he was good to go. He told me he was good to go and we ran the action for him and he was wide open. I think he was trying to tough his way through it. Seniors die hard. Jon and (fifth-year senior) Joe (Bertrand), just like the other guys, gave extra effort on numerous occasions. That one just didn’t go in.
“We had another one we executed where Ekey got wide open, 15-footer, probably leg cramps but hit the backboard first. Jon doesn’t typically do that.”
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After his State of the Union address on Tuesday, President Obama revealed that he was fighting his staff to let him watch some of the game that night between Iowa and Michigan before taking his place in the chamber at the House of Representatives to deliver the annual address to the country.
President Obama wasn’t given access to the remote control, but Iowa coach Fran McCaffery appreciated the interest in his program.
“I was excited about it,” McCaffery said. “I know he’s a big hoops guy. He watches college basketball, and he plays basketball, a big basketball fan.”
McCaffery played college basketball against Obama’s brother-in-law, Oregon State coach Craig Robinson, in the Ivy League. McCaffery played at Penn. Robinson played at Princeton. McCaffery tried to get Obama to come visit his team when he was in town campaigning a couple of years ago.
“He was ripping and running pretty good, so he was in and out of town,” McCaffery said. “I think it says a lot about our team. I think it says a lot about our league that the president would want to watch that game.”
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Illinois’ freshmen, according to their coach, made plenty of mistakes early in Saturday’s loss. They also made some plays that has you understanding why so many are excited about their futures.
After a turnover at midcourt, 6-foot-3 Kendrick Nunn raced to the other end and blocked a dunk attempt by 6-9 Aaron White.
“Kendrick, he’s the best,” Groce said. “He just doesn’t know any better. Most guys his age, 18 years old, would hang their head after the turnover. He just runs to the other end and blocks the shot. He’s a tough kid, (Jaylon) Tate’s a tough kid. (Malcolm) Hill’s coming along with his toughness. (Maverick) Morgan gave us some valuable minutes after his first stint.
Nunn and Hill each scored seven points. Nunn added a career-high four assists.
“I love their energy, the excitement they bring and the enthusiasm they bring,” Groce said.
There are some, though, who suggest the freshmen should be playing larger roles based on the promise they’re showing.
“They’re getting the minutes they’re getting,” Groce said. “The veterans, their body of work, they’ve done good things in practice. I’m continuing to develop the freshmen, but I’m sticking with those guys. Joe didn’t play well a couple games in a row; Joe’s an unbelievable kid and (Saturday night) he goes for 20. Now everybody’s going to be writing he needs to play more. You can’t be so wishy-washy. You need some stability. You’ve got to weather storms, have some substance.
“I like the development they’re making. They made some plays (Saturday night); they also made some mistakes. We’ve got to get those cleaned up.”