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DES MOINES, Iowa — Stanley Morris tries to attend the NCAA men’s basketball tournament as often as possible.
When the Joliet native planned this year’s trip, Denver and Des Moines were the two cities that caught his eye.
Given that Morris is a father of four children who attended the University of Illinois, it wound up being an easy choice.
“Since the airlines were having so much trouble getting their act together, I decided I’ll just drive over to Des Moines because I know I can make it instead of my flight getting canceled,” Morris said. “They landed just right where they sent Illinois to Des Moines, so I’m here and they’re here.”
Morris was among a contingent of Illini fans on hand to watch Brad Underwood’s team partake in an open practice at Wells Fargo Arena ahead of the program’s 33rd appearance in the NCAA tournament.
He’s seen Illinois play in the Big Dance before, sometimes by any means necessary. When the top-seeded Illini faced Northwestern State in the opening round of the 2001 NCAA tournament in Dayton, Ohio, Morris acquired tickets from an unlikely source.
“I couldn’t get tickets through the (UI),” Morris said. “I ended up calling (Northwestern State’s) athletic department. The administrative assistant gave me the cellphone number for the coach, (who was) already in Dayton, and I called the coach and asked him if he had tickets for me.
“I told him I wanted four, and he said, ‘You’re gonna buy them?’ and I said yeah. He said, ‘Well, I’ll leave them at the will call window for you,’ so (my daughter and I) ended up sitting with Northwestern State fans, four rows back in their section. We’re the only two wearing orange. Every time my daughter would get up and cheer, they’d look around like, who are these people?”
His voyage from Joliet on Wednesday placed him alongside many Iowa-based Illini fans who couldn’t pass up the short commute.
Amanda and Jacob Burris — both local high school students — were watching the Illini warm up alongside their father, Mike, a native of Avon.
“It was like pure joy,” Amanda said of the moment of learning that the Illini were Iowa-bound.
“I told my parents we had to get tickets right away,” Jacob added.
Two UI-Springfield graduates now local to Des Moines — Mary Doyle and Kevin Teale — were watching the practice from separate perches.
Teale was taking in the action from behind one of the baskets, while Doyle was sitting close enough with her family to snap a photo with Illini standout Coleman Hawkins as the team made its way off the floor.
“That was awesome,” Doyle said. “I have enjoyed watching him play. He gets so excited and just is an excellent player. Last year he’d do something great and just get so excited with himself. He’s matured a little this year and just has excellent basketball sense.”
Teale, a Chicago native who has lived in the Des Moines area for three decades, relishes the chance to watch the Illini whenever possible.
“Obviously here in Iowa, the Hawkeyes are No. 1, but we can watch the Fighting Illini and cheer them on for sort of a second team,” Teale said. “Great to come out today and see them, didn’t get a chance to see them this season because we only played once, so it’s nice to be out here and being able to watch them.”
Doug Martin, a 2006 UI graduate now local to Des Moines, was taking in the action with his young daughter, Etta. His father, Bob Martin Jr., and younger brother, Bob Martin III, will join him for the game on Thursday.
“I was a season ticket-holder, I actually went to the national championship game in St. Louis in 2005,” Martin said. “I grew up (watching) college basketball with my dad, so it’s nice to kind of share this memory.”
Martin is originally from an area of Illinois that has strong ties to the current era of Illini basketball.
“My dad remembers Geoff Alexander playing at Bushnell-Prairie City High School, which is where I went,” Martin said. “He’s still a season ticket-holder (at Western Illinois) so he remembers (Underwood) when he was coaching there years ago.”
Dallas City native Erick Danielson was having a tougher time convincing his son, Trey, to don orange and blue after making the 20-minute trip to Des Moines from Norwalk, Iowa.
“Living here in Iowa, there’s always still a rivalry I have with Hawkeye fans,” Danielson said. “My daughter is going to come with me to the game tomorrow (as well) so it is kind of going to be a family event, along with a friend that’s a Kansas fan. “We’ll be friends tomorrow, but maybe not on Saturday.”
The NCAA tournament hasn’t been the first opportunity for Illini fans to travel this season; Illinois also played in Las Vegas and New York City during nonconference play and ventured to Maryland and Pennsylvania during Big Ten play.
Fulton resident Curtis Deetz saw the Illini battle UCLA and Virginia in Las Vegas and also caught a home game in Champaign.
“I like (Underwood) a lot and I would say my favorite player is probably Terrence Shannon,” Deetz said, adding that Nick Anderson and the Flyin’ Illini provided some of his favorite memories in nearly four decades as an Illinois fan.
Though somewhat dependent on Illinois’ performance against Arkansas, there should be enough for locals and fans who are in the area for the first time to enjoy themselves.
”I’m just looking (forward to surveying) the area,” Morris said. “See what’s what, you know. I’ve been through Des Moines before but I’ve never been here, so, yeah, that’s pretty much it. I try to pick different sites so I can see different cities.”