CHAMPAIGN — Saturday was the first chance Westchester St. Joseph big man Nick Rakocevic got to visit State Farm Center for an Illinois game. After watching the Illini and Buckeyes in the first half, the 6-foot-10 sophomore felt like he’d be a good fit in orange.
“It’s so fun. It’s going great. The crowd is electric. I like all the fans here,” said Rakocevic, whom many consider to be the best player in the state in the 2016 class. “I think my game would fit in well with Illinois, and so far it’s been really good.”
The Illinois coaching staff has built a relationship with Rakocevic throughout the season, and the big man, who’s also heard from Marquette, Florida, Northwestern and Iowa, has been impressed with John Groce and his staff.
“They’ve been in contact with me for a while, like three, four months. Coach Groce came to see me at the beginning of my season. I’m glad to finally make it here,” said Rakocevic, who wore a bright orange hoodie to the game Saturday. “They like a flexible big guy who can do a little bit of everything, three-pointer, dribble. That’s what my game is.”
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Illinois 2015 commit Aaron Jordan, who has become a regular at State Farm Center, attended Saturday’s game with his dad, Rob. Jordan was fresh off scoring a career-high 38 points for Plainfield East on Friday in a loss to rival Plainfield South.
The sharpshooting guard scored the 38 points without the benefit of making a three-pointer.
“I was definitely in the zone. I started off attacking the basket, and everything kind of fell into place,” Jordan said. “I’ve been doing that a lot lately, getting to the basket, making myself tougher to guard. I was just taking what the defense was giving me. I was 0 for 2 from three, so I was just trying to get to the basket and get what I could.”
Jordan, a 6-4 guard, went 12 of 18 from the floor and 14 of 17 from the free throw line.
Jordan cracked the Scout.com Top 100 for the Class of 2015 this week at No. 86. Point guard Jalen Brunson, an Illinois target in the class, checked in at No. 35.
“He’s pretty good. I hear he’s a really good point guard. He can score and do a lot,” Jordan said of Brunson. “I don’t know him real well; I acknowledge him when I see him.”
Jordan gets to as many games as he can in Champaign, though Saturday was the first he had been able to make since the Michigan State game Jan. 18.
“I miss coming down here. I was just down here a few weeks ago, and I was so anxious to get back down here. I love it here,” he said.
He’s watched every other game on television, trying as best he can to keep his emotions in check during the rough stretch.
“It’s a great feeling. I’m always in front of the TV, very into it, leaning over; my eyes don’t come off the TV,” he said. “Coach Groce is going to get them back on track. As long as they keep playing hard, playing together, they’re going to be fine.”
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Former Illini Brandon Paul announced on his Twitter account Saturday morning that he was leaving his professional team in Russia, Nizhny Novgorod, to return to the U.S.
Paul had played in 22 of 28 games for the club, averaging 6.0 points per game.
“Been through a lot these last few months battling back & forth on certain things I’ve been dealing with. I’ve come to the decision to return home,” said Paul via @BP3. “This will help me reboot mentally & finish out the rest of the season elsewhere. The decision for me to leave was mutual although I had been looking for an alternative situation that better fits me for a while. It’s not always clear who has your best interests at heart & at the end of the day I had to do what was best for me/my future. Those close to me know the struggles I’ve endured & I will use this as a learning experience as I definitely think it helped my mental toughness. I will keep y’all posted on what’s next for me!”
Paul went on to wish his former teammates well the rest of the season and in the playoffs.
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Prior to Saturday’s game, Illinois honored families that have combined to donate more than $9 million to the State Farm Center renovation project, many of whom will have their names displayed inside the renovated arena in different capacities. These funds are in addition to the major gifts that have been announced in recent months.
“We feel really good,” said Howard Milton, associate director of athletics for development. “These have been real leaders. These are leadership gifts people have committed, and they stepped up to the plate really early to help get this thing done.”
Milton and Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas are pleased with the progress of the donations and are continuing their push to raise more funds as the project moves along.
“It’s been tremendous with the support. A lot of folks probably thought we wouldn’t be this far along, but we’ve met a lot of our goals, so we’re very happy,” Milton said. “The next step is to continue to cultivate relationships. We’ve developed some great relationships. Rick Darnell, our senior associate athletic director, and Mike Thomas have both developed some great relationships. I think there will be more gifts to announce, and we will continue to build those relationships.”
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Saturday was Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft’s final game at State Farm Center. Groce, along with other coaches from the Big Ten, won’t miss the 6-2 guard, who is known for his defense.
“He’s one of those guys you feel like (has) been there forever. He’s made a great impact on their basketball program, our league. I have such a high level of respect for him and how he conducts his business both on and off the court, how competitive he is. He’s, and this is an understatement here, a winner,” Groce said.
With Saturday’s win, Craft and fellow senior Lenzelle Smith Jr. earned the 114th victory of their careers, moving 15 behind David Lighty for the most at Ohio State.
“How much stronger he’s gotten, you read about his strength gains year after year after year. He’s a sub-5-miler. He’s a poster child for maxing out what you have, competing,” Groce said. “His competitiveness, his approach to how he does things. He’s obviously had a great career and continuing to have a great career.”
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This was the first Illinois home game since the incident last week involving Oklahoma State guard Marcus Smart, who went into the stands at Texas Tech and shoved a fan.
To curtail any potential trouble between its fans and the players, Illinois placed cards on the seats closest to the court Saturday reminding fans of the behavior expected of them.
“We encourage you to be enthusiastic fans but ask you to demonstrate good sportsmanship at all times,” the card read.
Among the other reminders on the card were that fans be respectful of all student-athletes, coaches, officials, media and other fans. Profane, racial, sexist or otherwise-abusive actions or comments would not be tolerated and are grounds for immediate removal.