I arrived at Assembly Hall at about 8:30 on Friday night, and the lines to get into the building were already stretched out from the Assembly Hall doors to the street with adults, children, and students all decked out in their orange shirts. Once the doors opened up, the stream of orange filled into Assembly Hall and every person received a free white t-shirt with the slogan "Paint the State Orange." The Paint the State Orange t-shirts were thanks to a few Illinois alumni that want to increase the exposure of the Illini program across the state of Illinois. These same alumni were able to bring former Chicago Bulls Public Address Announcer Ray Clay down to be the emcee of the event. As an Illini fan, I am really appreciative of what these alumni did to promote this event; in fact they did more than the Athletic Department itself.
After taking my seat in the B section (don't worry I will be back in the C Section for the regular season) across from the Illini bench, I started to take in the atmosphere and noticed the changes in Assembly Hall for this coming season. The first obvious change was the new paint job on the court with the orange surrounding the court instead of the navy blue. The next change, though I am not sure it is permanent and was not for last night was the placing of chairs on the standing bleachers where the player's family and some lucky graduate students sat in the previous season. Outside of that, Assembly Hall looked much the same as it has for the last six years when, as Bruce Weber pointed out on Friday evening, Illinois has recorded the best home record in the nation.
After about ten minutes, the video board was turned on and it started to run a few advertisements highlighting the upcoming basketball season, and recapping last year's run through the NCAA Tournament. The advertisements they ran highlighted Dee Brown coming back to Champaign for his final season, and his nickname, "The One Man Fast Break." The other advertisement focused on fellow senior, and team captain, James Augustine. Kudos to the Illinois Athletic Department for two great advertisements to coincide with the Illini Basketball season. In combination with the advertisements we see on the jumbotron in Memorial Stadium and on the Ron Zook Show, Illinois has really improved the quality of their advertisements in the past two years from terrible to very good.
The video montage of the NCAA Tournament run brought back chills, especially the Arizona game. After the montage ended, the video board played the final four minutes of the Arizona game from Chicago last March. The entire Assembly Hall crowd was cheering with every basket, defensive stop, and steal though nowhere near as loud as it was in the Allstate Arena that Saturday night. Then when they showed the Championship game highlights some boos were heard due to the result of last April's game. It was a great way for the University of Illinois to put an end on last season, and turn the page to start a new chapter for this year.
After a few activities that were designed to get the crowd more involved, the women's basketball team was introduced and played a fifteen-minute running-clock scrimmage that took the entire crowd out of the festivities. Then something happened, the lights went dark in Assembly Hall, the video highlighting the Illini's NCAA Tournament run was shown again, as was the The Champ is Here! video. It was time for what every one in the building had been waiting for; the Fighting Illini Men's Basketball team was going to be introduced for the first time to the Illini faithful.
Ray Clay had the honors, and introduced the Illini in class order starting with Trent Meacham. Next came Bruce Weber's freshman class of Chester Frazier, CJ Jackson, and Jamar Smith. Then came the sophomore class, and then the Illini juniors. Now was the time that all the fans were waiting for, the Illini seniors James Augustine and Dee Brown.
Ray Clay announced James' name, but he did not come out of the tunnel. "Where was he?" crossed the mind of every fan, and then the spotlight hit as James came down through the crowd from behind the Illini bench giving high-fives to fans.
Now it was time for the largest roar of the night, Ray Clay introduced the heart and soul of the Illini, Dee Brown. Like his senior brethren, he came through the crowd before joining his teammates at center court.
The coaches were introduced, and then like his two seniors, Bruce Weber walked through the Illini Nation to center court after he was announced to a chorus of "Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!" ringing through Assembly Hall.
After the team was announced Kenny Battle took the microphone and figuratively passed the torch as the face of the Illini program from himself to Dee Brown in his speech. He said that Champaign would always be home, and then introduced Dee Brown. Dee took the microphone and thanked the fans for coming, and then it was time for the three point and dunk contest. Dee Brown won the three-point shootout over Rich McBride after they tied in the first finals. The slam dunk contest was without Calvin Brock as he was sitting out the festivities as a reminder that he needed to take care of academics as well as athletics at Illinois. Without Calvin in the dunk contest, it was easy picking for Brian Randle. (For some videos of the dunk contest from IlliniBoard.com, click here).
After the three-point and slam dunk contest were over, it was time for the Illini to have their first public scrimmage of the season. I could go into every little thing that happened on Friday night on the court, but this was not a real scrimmage, it was a time for the players to have fun without repercussions for bad shots, crazy passes, or general malaise on the defensive end of the court. In fact, I have seen better basketball played in Rucker Park than I saw on the court Friday night in Champaign.
While this was the first time that I was able to see the Illini freshmen play, you really could not come away with much on how they will play, nor how they will fit into the rotation this season because of the general sloppiness of the play. Though, why would that stop me from coming up with some general views of the three players for those that were unable to attend on Friday night?
RANDOM PLAYER THOUGHTS FROM FRIDAY'S ILLINI MADNESS FESTIVITIES
- Chester Frazier: The Illini freshman point guard looked to have the body, and the desire to drive the ball to the basket at any opportunity. There was one play where he and Warren Carter executed a nice pick-and-pop play in the two man game, but other than that, there was not much that stood out. I can say that the reports from Champaign about his play were not extremely exaggerated based on Friday night's performance, which is a good thing.
- Jamar Smith: As expected, Jamar Smith is a shooter, and is not afraid to shoot the basketball. He has a quick release on his shot, and it went in on Friday night.
- CJ Jackson: The one thing I noticed about CJ is that he was really enjoying himself, and I don't think his smile ever was below the Cheshire cat level. At the start of the scrimmage, CJ was on the bench, but he saw plenty of time as Coach Weber rotated the big guys all game to give all of them time on the court. CJ has great size, but he still looks more like an offensive lineman than a power forward, so I still hope he takes a redshirt season to get into basketball shape.