'Too good to pass up': Hummel sad to end career but excited to start broadcasting

'Too good to pass up': Hummel sad to end career but excited to start broadcasting

CHAMPAIGN — Stops in Champaign have always been special for Robbie Hummel. His grandparents still live in town. His dad, a Champaign Central grad, played tennis at Illinois.

Hummel, of course, ended up playing at Purdue for Matt Painter. The former Boilermakers forward was then selected in the second round of the 2012 NBA draft by Minnesota and ended up playing for the Timberwolves and in Spain, Italy and Russia.

Hummel has since transitioned from the court to the sideline. He was back in Champaign on Sunday working as the analyst for Big Ten Network.

"I probably didn't think that I'd be done playing as of now, but I had this opportunity and thought it was too good to pass up doing both networks, ESPN and Big Ten Network," said Hummel, who last played for BC Khimki Moscow during the 2016-17 season. "It's been really fun. I'm getting paid to watch basketball, and the way you prepare for it is to watch more basketball."

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Hummel is in his first season as a basketball analyst, just like former Eastern Illinois and Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo.

Hummel, however, doesn't have quite the same opportunity to break down plays before they happen.

"I think it's a little harder with basketball because your play-by-play guy is talking a lot while the play is going on and then you take it," he said. "I think you can forecast things coming out of a timeout or at the end of the game. That's been kind of fun to try to do. Tony's the master of calling what's about to happen."

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Hummel's last game at what was then Assembly Hall came during the 2011-12 season. He put up 19 points and 11 rebounds, and Purdue beat Illinois 67-62 on Feb. 15, 2012.

"Brandon Paul missed a three from right there actually," Hummel said, pointing to a spot on what's now State Farm Center's Lou Henson Court. "It was a big game for us. We were trying to make the NCAA tournament. We made some big shots at the end of the game."

That game has ended up part of Illinois basketball lore following then-coach Bruce Weber's comments after the Illini loss.

"I think the last three years all I worried about was winning instead of developing a culture and a toughness," Weber said after that game. "And that's my fault. And it's sometimes the kids. We're always kind of mollycoddling them. Sooner or later if you're a player, you're a player.

"Robbie Hummel's a player. (D.J.) Byrd's a player. They go make plays. Lewis Jackson makes plays."

Hummel remembered those comments, too.

"I knew things were tough for him at that point," Hummel said. Weber was ultimately fired at the end of the season.

"It's hard when you've got that kind of pressure, and you kind of see the writing on the wall," Hummel continued. "I felt bad for him because I really like and respect Coach Weber. It was a huge win for us and kind of a crushing loss for Illinois."

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Plenty of players on the Illinois roster — most of them, actually — were "the guy" somewhere else. Mostly during their high school careers. Or, like Mark Alstork, at one of his previous collegiate stops.

None of them had ever been "the guy" for the Illini. It's a role Illinois is still looking to fill, and one Illinois coach Brad Underwood said Te'Jon Lucas has taken steps toward claiming. At least being one of "the guys" for the Illini.

Underwood credited Lucas' leadership during halftime of Illinois' win against North Carolina Central. The 6-foot sophomore point guard took control offensively in the second half and overtime Friday night against Northwestern before the Illini dropped the 72-68 game to their in-state rivals.

"People forget. We haven't had anybody that's been in these moments," Underwood said. "This is all a new experience for everybody — being the guy or being one of the guys. Te'Jon's becoming very comfortable with that role.

"He's stepping into it, and I think with that is coming some confidence. I have a lot of confidence in him. I think the next step for him is understanding in late games it's not about making a play for yourself, it's about making a play for others. He's becoming a guy that's reliable and trustworthy. He knows what we're doing and what we're about. That's a comfortable feeling."

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Lucas has also shown he's one of Illinois' top defenders. The Illini backcourt is strong in that regard with the likes of Lucas, Alstork and freshman Da'Monte Williams. Underwood called the former two his team's best defenders.

"What gets overlooked sometimes is defensive chemistry and the rotations," Underwood said. "Those guys make very, very few mistakes defensively. Te'Jon just hounds the ball constantly and is very good at it. Mark Alstork, you can tell he's a senior. His rotations defensively are spot on. He doesn't miss much. If he gets beat, it's usually because he's trying to over help, and that's a nice problem to have.

"Those two guys do that every day. That's something I'm very, very comfortable with — their effort and their attention to detail and assignment on the defensive end. They don't blow assignments."

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Illinois has made concerted efforts this season to get Leron Black the ball in the post in advantageous positions and let the redshirt junior forward work down low for his points. Doing the same for Michael Finke is on Underwood's to-do list.

While Illinois will still run plays for Finke to get open looks on the perimeter, Underwood doesn't want to limit the 6-foot-10 redshirt junior forward.

"We've got to get him some post touches," Underwood said. "He's very, very capable right hand, left hand."

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Mark Smith and what he's able to do offensively — as in get his own shot attacking the basket — is a secret no longer. Opposing teams are starting to turn their focus toward the Illini's starting freshman guard.

"Teams are dialed in on him," Underwood said. "He's not at the bottom of the scouting report. He's toward the top, and teams are trying to figure out how to guard him. It's about figuring out exactly how he's going to get opportunities and put him in those spots.

"He's got to continue to grow on the defensive end. That's something he works on every day. He's got tremendous pride and is very conscientious."

Smith's struggles after a strong start to the season don't have Underwood overly concerned — even if the 2017 Illinois Mr. Basketball has finished the last two games on the bench.

"I think he's going through what a lot of freshmen go through," the Illini coach said. "I don't care how many stars you are or what awards you won in high school. You can put all those in a trash can — or put them on the wall so you can remember — because when you go to college it's a different deal."