Kevin Skillett grew up in Illinois loving the Illini, but was given a chance to play his college basketball for the University of Iowa. Recently I sat down with Skillett to get his opinion of life on the road in the Big Ten.
"First, there're a lot of tough places to play in the Big Ten. Each night out on the road is tough, but for a lot of reasons winning on the road is very hard. I mean you have hostile environments like Michigan State, Illinois, Indiana and sometimes Iowa," said Skillett. Skillett said most people don't understand how hard it is to play in some of these arenas. "The crowds sometimes are ruthless, and there's so much emotion going on with you as a player. Everything is different. The shooting background; and let's be honest here - when all you read or hear from ESPN that you can't win on the road, players feed into that sometimes," he said.
Former Illini coach Bill Self said during a press conference once that when you recruit kids you better recruit kids that are tough mentally because it makes life easier when things don't go their way and when it's time to compete they will do that. Skillett stated that 95% of winning on the road is mental and it can be done. "Last year was a special year for a team like Illinois. They were tough as nails and they learned how to win on the road, but this year I don't see a team like that in the Big Ten. I see some good teams, but nothing like that."
Currently ESPN has a poll going where you the fan can vote on the toughest place to play. For Kevin Skillett, that vote would be easy. Without hesitation he said, "No doubt – Indiana. Kedric, when I was playing there it was a one or two possession game and I was playing the point guard position and all the way up the court I couldn't hear the ball hit the court while I was dribbling. I wasn't nervous, but my adrenalin was going. It was great." Today Skillett said the three toughest places to play in the Big Ten (in this order) would be: Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin.
Skillett will always be a Hawkeye, but this year he doesn't see them winning the conference title. "Right now I think Michigan State and Illinois would be the favorites. How can you not pick Illinois with players like Dee Brown and the big fella James Augustine? You know what I love? Dee Brown during the Iowa game. He just didn't have it, but what we as players respect and understand is how hard a guy like that plays. He probably wasn't getting some of the calls he thought he should have, but not once did I see him pout. Dee Brown is a classy kid. The play in the second half when he and Horner went after a lose ball and Dee grabbed onto Horner to break the fall, he immediately got up and showed respect for Horner," Skillett said.
"Winning the Big Ten any year you have to find a way to get your players to believe they can win on the road and play in hostile environments. If you can do that, you will have a chance," according to Skillett. Head Coach Bruce Weber has proven all of his teams can do that, but if they drop one from time to time, just remember what it would be like to hear 15,000 screaming fans yelling at you while you were on the free throw line trying to keep your team in the hunt.