CHICAGO - UIC coach Steve McClain played salesman for his program following Saturday's 83-79 loss to Illinois. That's his job.
But his plea to continue the sister-school series -- Saturday's game was the last of a six-game contract -- at the United Center should go down as a first-year coach's futile attempt to keep his program's premier nonconference game.
"I think in the overall point for both universities, I'll say this, I think this is a great event for both universities," McClain said after his Flames' narrow loss.
Great college basketball events draw more than 5,151 fans, the attendance at Saturday's ugly game. Great events are broadcast on television, not subjected to stream-only status like Saturday's barely-seen game.
Illinois vs. UIC at the United Center is not a "great event." So, the series should cease at the venue.
If the University of Illinois Board of Trustees wants a sister-school game -- word is that the board may want more Illinois-UIC games at the UC -- that's understandable. The two system schools should play. A series gives UIC a Big Ten opponent. A series gives Illinois a tune-up nonconference game while keeping all revenue within the UI system. Big sister helps the small sister grow. It makes sense.
It just doesn't make much sense anymore for big sister, who's having her own growth issues, to continue sacrificing one of her premier nonconference games to aid still-struggling little sister.
The previous agreement calls for the programs to split revenue, but UIC also gets half the ticket alottment provided by the United Center -- which is why one side of the United Center was even more barren than the other. UIC sold 900 tickets for Saturday's game. Illinois -- whose struggles have resulted in decreases in State Farm Center attendance -- only sold about 3,000 tickets through its office with the rest of the tickets sold through the United Center. Illinois has to split its share of the revenue with UIC.
And since UIC was the home team on Saturday, Illinois couldn't even host any recruits -- recruiting is one of the normal adantages of hosting a game in Chicago. This arrangement no longer makes sense for an Illini program that needs to make the most of every scheduling opportunity.
"I've been pretty open about how we want to schedule the game moving forward," Illinois coach John Groce said. "Obviously, there's a lot of hands involved in that. We had Oregon and Auburn and we had some good crowds both those days. I think for us to come up here, that's certainly the direction I would like to go. But certainly, there's a lot of people involved in making decisions like that. I'm not the only decision maker when it comes to that. Certainly, that's what I'd prefer."
The decision makers include leadership in the Illinois athletic department -- associate athletic director Jaosn Lener leads scheduling for Illini basketball (and football) -- but the "hands" Groce is referring to are the Board of Trustees.
This is a Board of Trustees game, even if most do not attend the game. The six-game contract, which started in 1996, was a handout to former Illini assistant turned UIC head coach Jimmy Collins, who was passed over as Illini head coach following Lou Henson's retirement for Lon Kruger.
The sister schools have played 16 times -- Illinois has won 14 of them -- with the last five played at the United Center. Games in 1991 and 2000 were played in the Rosemont, just 16 miles northwest of the United Center. Illinois played once at the UIC Pavilion, a 68-63 Illini win in 1996.
Yes, Illinois should play UIC. So how about hosting UIC in Champaign every year? UIC would get a big payment game -- maybe bigger than what they're getting at the United Centeer -- to help support their athletic department. Then once every six years or so, Illinois could play the Flames at the UIC Pavilion, and UIC would get ticket revenue for the game.
This annual United Center game for the Illini has some prestige, just as the Illini program has lost its luster.
Once upon a time, Illinois hosted UCLA (1996), Duke (1999), Kansas (1999) here. Most of the recent matchups have been solid -- including Georgia, Gonzaga, UNLV, Auburn and Oregon -- but not as must-see as the early matchups. Attendance has slightly declined, as you see in this graph.
The graph shows that this year's attendance is an outlier, and while attendance is declining, the trend line (green line) shows that it has been a slow and steady decline (just like the Illini win totals).
Attendance is based on two huge factors: 1) Illinois' performance (high marks in 2001, 2004 and 2005 against Arkansas, Oregon and Xavier, respectively); and 2) the quality of opponent (high marks fo Duke '94, Arizona '00, Gonzaga '10 and low marks for Clemson '97, Bradley '98, Temple '02, Georgia '08 and the UIC games.
This year's low mark was a convergence of a bottoming-out of both factors: an unsexy opponent and the lowest excitement level about the program since the Illini started playing games at the United Center.
Illinois has had discussions with other programs about playing at the united Center but has not yet finalized a deal. There is no opponent yet scheduled for next December at the United Center.
Illinois should go big -- or stay home.
Get premier opponents to Chicago. Give Chicago -- which is concentrated on the Bears, Blackhawks, Bulls and now the Cubs in December -- a reason to glance at the Illini for two hours in December.
Under Weber, the Illini seemed to want to draw beatable opponents who could slightly help the RPI. Crowds were slightly declining but good to very good. But with the program struggling, Illinois has nothing to lose by hosting big-name opponents here; only upside -- in RPI, exposure and recruiting.
Bring back UCLA and return to L.A.
Bring in Texas and return to Dallas.
Bring in Syracuse -- yes, I know the Big Ten/ACC Challenge is already on the schedule -- and return to Madison Square Garden.
Bring in Georgetown and return to D.C.
Bring in UConn and return to Boston/Providence.
How about the Rick George Classic against Colorado: one game at the United Center and one in Denver?
Heck, I like Mark Tupper's idea of a four-game series against Butler (one game at the UC, one at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, one in Champaign and one at Hinkle Fieldhouse), reminiscent of the Gonzaga series. This type of series would be fun with Iowa State, SMU (Dallas and Larry Brown), or even St. John's (Madison Square Garden and Chris Mullin).
Those kind of series should excite fans, current players and recruits.
The trouble in scheduling this game is the return game. The Illini already have guarantee games with the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, the Gavitt Tipoff Games (three more appearances the next seven years), a Thanksgiving Tournament and the Braggin' Rights Game in St. Louis.Groce wants more home games, so a non-return deal would be ideal -- but those are difficult to find.
If Notre Dame doesn't want to play a neutral site series for a couple years, call up Marquette. The Golden Eagles shouldn't need a return game because their campus is closer to the United Center than Illinois. If you're going to go with another Chicago team, call up DePaul for a game.
The Illini have made a second home in Chicago for more than two decades. Despite recent struggles -- losing four of the previous six nonconference games at the United Center before Saturday's narrow win over UIC -- Illinois is still 36-14 at the home of the Bulls and Blackhawks.
The Illini want to, should and likely will continue hosting December games at the United Center for the foreseeable future. But UIC should no longer be a part of those UC plans.