During his first month as Illinois basketball coach in the spring of 2012, John Groce took his most important recruiting target at the time, Kendrick Nunn, to the Illinois basketball arena.
The Assembly Hall -- as it was called from its construction in 1963 until 2013, when a $60-million, 30-year naming rights deal changed it to State Farm Center -- was cavernous and colorless.
"I remember walking Kendrick Nunn in there the first week we had the job," Groce said. "We went over and it was all gray."
Groce and the Illini practiced in the renovated arena, brightened with orange and blue, for the first time on Monday.
"It was amazing," Groce said. "It even shocked me because I hadn't been there in about a month, but it's neat. It's a program changer. It's great to see it come to fruition and start to unfold before your eyes."
The results of a renovated State Farm Center will be unveiled Wednesday when Illinois tips off against Notre Dame (8:15 p.m. CT, ESPN2) as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
The arena still needs some final touches (new scoreboard, ribbon boards, locker rooms, etc.) to be completed in the fifth and final phase of the project after this season. But most of the $169.5 million project -- which began with a study in 2008 under former athletic director Ron Guenther and continued, including the start of construction in the spring of 2014, under recently dismissed athletic director Mike Thomas -- will be on public display on Wednesday.
Some of those improvements include: orange and blue seats, restrooms on the upper concourse (there were none the previous 52 years), air conditioning, a new apparel store, additional concession stands, new entrances on the East and West sides of the arena, a Traditions Club, 144 loge seats,12 suites and an Orange Krush club.
One of the most noticeable changes is increased and improved student seating. Before the renovation, students had 700 courtside seats, most sitting on bleachers or seats parallel to the floor. Now, there will be 1,200 student stadium-style seats surrounding three sides of the court.
The updates benefit the fans. More importantly, though, the renovation should benefit Groce's program and help him land more talents like Nunn, now a junior star on the team.
"I think that's big in recruiting," Groce said. "I think it's big just in terms of momentum. Facilities upgrade, we needed that. Obviously, the building has great tradition, and it means a lot not only to our community and the campus but the state. It's a phenomenal building. But it did need some renovations. It's affected recruiting even to this point. I think it will continue to do that moving forward. I think our guys are excited about it. I think the gameday atmosphere is going to be even better. There's just a lot of pluses that go with it."
Joining the arms race
The State Farm Center renovation was a must for Illinois if it wants to stay competitive in the Big Ten arms race. Heck, it may need to renovate Ubben Basketball Facility, opened in 1998, to continue to keep up.
Most of the conference has built up its facilities during the last decade.
- Ohio State finished the $19 million expansion and renovation of its basketball facility in 2013.
- Iowa completed its $43 million renovation of Carver Hawkeye Arena in 2011.
- Michigan State spent $3.8 million on renovation of its practice facility and recently approved a $50 million renovation of the Breslin Center.
- Purdue finished a long, $82 million renovation of Mackey Arena in 2011.
- Michigan completed a $52 million renovation of the Crisler Center, along with the construction of a new practice facility, in 2011.
- Nebraska invested $180 million into a historically bad basketball program with the construction of Pinnacle Bank Arena, which was unveiled in 2013.
Why? Because everyone else is doing it. And in a world that relies on impressing talented players and convincing them to play in your facilities, college basketball programs must keep up with the Joneses.
“When a kid comes in and sees our place, it is eye-popping," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "I’m sure that’s a big part of it. I’m not a big eye-popping guy so I probably don’t understand that. I know it’s important you have a good-looking place. In this league, you better. Because almost everybody’s got one. Almost everybody.”
The effects on recruiting are debated. Some think it raises the ceiling in recruiting. Others think it simply raises the floor.
“I think it puts us on the same playing level as a lot of people,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “It doesn’t give you an advantage but it doesn’t -- more importantly -- give you a disadvantage. There’s some people that have a disadvantage (with facilities). We used to be one of those teams that had a disadvantage but now we don’t.
“It’s not going to help you get a player, but now it’s not going to hurt you. People always look at it like, ‘Man, that’s going to get them over the top (in recruiting).' It doesn’t get you over the top. It just doesn’t cost you.”
Added Beilein: “I would like to say it impacts a lot. Frankly, we haven’t seen it. We recruited Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson, Nick Stauskas out of trailer. We were out of a trailer. Now, we did have a plan there. I know they knew we were improving."
Developing players, fans
A blue-collar guy like Beilein thinks the results bear out more in development.
Michigan's state-of-the-art, 57,000-square-foot practice facility includes cameras that allow coaches to record practice, monitors inside the facility that coaches use for instant teaching moments, multiple lounges, video game systems and large-screen televisions.
Nebraska's Hendricks Training Complex may be even more impressive. The entrance includes a 5,500-pound granite basketball fountain with a net-like base and the lobby also includes a massive video wall with 14 monitors. The players' corridor includes an LED sensor lighting system with 3-D basketballs which capture the motion of the Huskers to follow them down the hallway. The player' lounge has three 65-inch TVs and a kitchen. The video room includes a wall-sized video screen wtih 23 theater-style chairs.
A nice mix of toys and tools that maximize both enjoyment and efficiency.
"Our practice center is called the William Davidson Player Development Center," said Beilein, whose Wolverines made the national championship game and another Elite Eight in the two seasons following the renovations. "It is all about developing. I want kids to look at this thing and think, ‘Wow, I can really get better here with the coaches and when the coaches aren’t around because of the environment that is created in our practice area.'
“It’s been huge. We’re so much more efficient. We have tremendous ability to practice when we want, how we want, as much as we want -- as much as the NCAA rules will allow us to practice -- so it has been terrific for us."
Upgraded facilities not only provides an enthusiasm boost for recruits, players and coaches. They can jolt the fan base.
Tim Miles took over the Nebraksa basketball program just before it unveiled Pinnacle Bank Arena. The program hadn't made the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
But Nebraska fans -- known for its ongoing football sellout streak of 347 games -- were so excited by the renovation that the school sold out every seat of the 15,419-seat arena for every game of the 2013-14 season before the season started, earning the highest percentage increase of attendance in college basketball in seven seasons. Nebraska went on to break a 16-year NCAA Tournament drought that season and ranked 10th nationally in attenance again last season.
“The arena is tremendous," Miles said. "It’s well-built. It’s well-designed. But more importantly, it’s what goes in it. Our fans are unbelievable. They’ve showed up to sell it out. They’ve showed up to support our guys. They’re loud. They’ve made it a very difficult playing environment (for opposing teams). When I look at it, I think our fans make it better than anything. They’ve cheered a product that, quite frankly, doesn’t deserve it but sometimes really deserves it.”
The Illini break in their new-look arena on Wednesday.
Groce hopes the renovation helps push the Illini program to a big breakthrough, just like its Big Ten competitors.
"I don't know what other word to give you. It's just awesome," Groce said. "It's a spectacular place. We're looking forward to play in it.
"It's going to be a point of pride. And it should be."