The United Center game in Chicago has lost its luster. I wrote about it last year when an announced crowd of just 5,151 fans showed up to watch Illinois narrowly defeat UIC.
The biggest reason for the decline of the annual nonconference trip to Chicago is the decline of Illinois basketball. The Illini (8-3) have made just three NCAA Tournaments during the last nine seasons -- and in a town dominated by the Bears, Cubs, Blackhawks, Bulls and White Sox, local college teams better win if they want attention in a pro sports town.
But the quality of opponent also has decreased in recent seasons. In the early years of the annual trip to the house that Jordan built, Illinois hosted UCLA (1996), Duke (1999), Kansas (1999) and Arizona (2000). The last six years have featured three games against UIC and one each against Auburn, UNLV and Oregon.
BYU, the Illini's opponent this Saturday, is a good opponent that has made the NCAA Tournament in eight of 11 seasons under head coach Dave Rose. But the Cougars (7-3) don't push the needle and won't draw much of its fan base to make the long trip from Provo, Utah. This season's game also is part of the inaugural Chicago Legends Classic, run by Public relations firm KemperLesnik. The other side of the doubleheader features Northwestern against Dayton.
The United Center game needs to be spiced up a little bit. Here are four categories of opponents who could do that.
Go big or fans likely will stay home. Schedule some of the best programs in the country and fans will show up. Oh, but the Illini are likely to lose? So what?! It'd help their RPI, excite the fan base and give them a chance at a marquee win. Note: No ACC opponents were listed (Duke or North Carolina) since Illinois could theoretically play them in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
- Arizona: Illinois had a nice little rivalry going on with Lute Olson about 15-20 years ago, but Sean Miller's program is far ahead of Illinois now. Still, the Illini would only have something to gain, and a return trip to Phoenix or Tuscon would be welcome in November or December.
- Kentucky: The Champions Classic already gives the Cats the Chicago exposure it wants, so it may not want or need another. Illinois really doesn't need to worry about losing recruits to Kentucky because John Calipari doesn't lose recruits to Illinois. The Illini only have something to gain here.
- Kansas: Similar to Kentucky, only the Illini coach that got away, Bill Self, paces the sideline for the Jayhawks. Kansas' latest attempts to steal Jeremiah Tilmon would only enhance the intensity of this game.
- UCLA: A return trip to Staples Center or Pauley Pavilion wouldn't be such a bad thing. And Illini fans certainly wouldn't mind beating former Hoosier great and former Hawkeye coach Steve Alford.
- Syracuse: A return trip to Madison Square Garden or even the Carrier Dome sounds fun.
Emerging Midwest powers
Schedule a "mid-major" that has developed into a legit, top NCAA program that would love to play a Big Ten opponent in the nation's third largest city.
- Butler: Groce and current Butler coach Chris Holtmann were teammates at Division II Taylor University. And Butler is a name brand at this point. This would be a fun, competitive game, and Butler fans could make the short drive from Indy.
- Wichita State: The Shockers now are a name brand after a few big seasons and still really good but a bit more beatable now. And at least the storyline of the Illini missing on Rockford point guard Fred VanVleet (who graduated) is in the past.
- Creighton: Current Bulls forward Doug McDermott could stop by and watch his dad's team try to gain another Big Ten win. Also, former Illini transfer target Mo Watson is a star junior guard for the Bluejays.
- Xavier: Probably not accurate to call Xavier as "emerging" since it's been one of the best, most consistent programs in the Midwest for a while. Groce's half-brother, Travis Steele, is an assistant at Xavier.
These are matchups that would provide some juicy storylines leading up to the game and some possible drama on the court.
- SLU: Jordan Goodwin vs. Tilmon. Travis Ford vs. John Groce. Illini fans may want to schedule this one for next year though, because SLU may have more talent soon.
- Kansas State: The man who steered the Illini program down its decline (Bruce Weber) against the man (Groce) who's struggled to build out of it. Though, given the tenuous position of both coaches, this storyline may be gone by next year.
- Auburn: Deon Thomas calling a game on the Illini Radio Network against the coach (Bruce Pearl) who derailed Illini basketball in the early 90s? Hello, drama.
- Florida: Suggested by our own Derek Piper. "Show UF where the best PG from their state (Trent Frazier) plays," Piper said. I like it.
- Houston: Cougars coach Kelvin Sampson stole Eric Gordon from Illinois, further wounding Weber's program. But his rules breaking also torpedoed Indiana's program for several seasons. After escaping to the NBA to wait out his show-cause penalty, Houston took the gamble and it's paid off. Houston went 22-9 last year and is off to a 7-2 start this season.
The concept is simple: schedule a nearby opponent (within two hours) who wants to share the Chicago exposure and wouldn't require a return game.
- Notre Dame: The Illini have approached the Irish in the past, but Notre Dame appears to have no interest. They seem to consider themselves more of an East Coast school than a Midwest/Chicago school.
- Marquette: I've been calling for this series for years. John Groce doesn't want to return a game due to the scheduling difficulties it causes. Well, Marquette wants to recruit Chicago and it's closer to the Windy City than Illinois. Play a game already!
- DePaul: The Blue Demons would love this, but what do the Illini have to gain here? DePaul often is in the bottom half of the RPI, so this game could actually weigh down Illinois even if it wins.
- Illinois State: It'd be a festive atmosphere and probably draw a pretty good crowd from both sides. The Redbirds haven't quite turned the corner under Dan Muller, but they're tough and athletic. The Redbirds, which haven't been afraid to schedule power-five nonconference opponents, would love this opportunity. Illinois probably would balk at it though.