UI nemesis Bielfeldt on tap
CHAMPAIGN — Max Bielfeldt could very well be in Indiana’s starting lineup Thursday night when the Hoosiers visit the renovated State Farm Center for the first time and Bielfeldt’s last as a college basketball player.
The 6-foot-8 power forward and graduate student made his fourth start of the season — but first in the Big Ten — in Indiana’s 77-73 win against Purdue on Saturday.
Mike Thorne Jr., another graduate transfer, will likely be on the Illinois bench in street clothes this time around against Indiana after his short-lived comeback from knee surgery against the Hoosiers last month. Thorne’s status continues to be day-to-day, with a setback to his surgically repaired right knee following the Illini’s 103-69 loss on Jan. 19 at Indiana robbing him of eight more games. And counting.
Thorne committed to Illinois last April. Bielfeldt decided on Indiana in June after also visiting Iowa State, Nebraska and DePaul. It’s another chapter in the “What if?” story for Bielfeldt, whose ties to Illinois run far deeper than just being a native of the state. Because Bielfeldt’s tale isn’t so simple as “Native son plays well against home state school.”
Just take a look across Fourth Street before you enter State Farm Center. His family name graces Illinois’ athletic administration building. His brother-in-law is former Illini and current Portland Trail Blazers center Meyers Leonard.
Bielfeldt was on Illinois’ radar coming out of Peoria Notre Dame — as a walk-on. Mike Shaw and Ibby Djimde were the scholarship bigs for Bruce Weber. Shaw transferred to Bradley, where chronic back issues ultimately ended his career before this season started. Djimde found his way to Southern Illinois, where he’s finishing his career averaging 2.1 points as a lightly used reserve.
Bielfeldt ultimately ended up at Michigan, redshirting during the Wolverines’ run to the 2013 national title game before suiting up as a reserve on their 2014 Elite Eight team.
But Bielfeldt didn’t become “Max Bielfeldt: Illinois Killer” until the last two seasons. He averaged eight points and five rebounds in three games last season for Michigan, hitting double-digit points in two of the three games. He was even better in January for the Hoosiers, scoring 16 points on 6-of-9 shooting to go with eight rebounds, three steals, three assists and two blocks.
“It always seems when he plays Illinois he has an extra chip on his shoulder and seems to bring something even more than he does against other teams,” Illinois redshirt freshman forward Michael Finke said. “He’s a good player, good guy, and I look forward to playing against him again. We’ve just got to go out there and be prepared for him. We know what he’s going to bring.”
There’s an extra confidence about Bielfeldt, Illinois junior guard Malcolm Hill said, when Bielfeldt squares off against the Illini.
“Once he gets going, he has the ultimate confidence,” Hill said. “That’s when he gets really aggressive, and that’s when he’s dangerous. The key is just to not get him going.”
Bielfeldt is averaging eight points and 4.6 rebounds for Indiana this season, while playing the most minutes per game of his career.
“You look at his production per minute played, his production is pretty impressive, whether it’s points per game or his field goal percentage, efficiency or rebounding,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He’s been a big part of what they do and has really been a great addition for them, in my mind, watching them on film. Definitely has made several positive contributions.”
State of mind
John Groce features nine Illinois natives on his roster. But here are five other Land of Lincoln standouts starring for their respective Big Ten team:
Ohio State via Normal
Lanky soph is second-leading scorer (11.9) and leading rebounder (6.6) for Buckeyes.
Indiana via Peoria
Fifth-year forward averaging eight points, 4.6 rebounds in lone season with Hoosiers.
Wisconsin via Milan
Versatile forward leading Big Ten in steals (48) and averaging 12.1 points and eight rebounds.
Northwestern via Hillside
Oak Park Fenwick grad made Illinois pay with 18 points earlier this month in Evanston.
Purdue via St. Charles
Outside threat is averaging 6.2 points in reserve role for Boilermakers.