Senior day for Shaun Pruitt was tough, even more so than for the regular senior leaving a program after four or five seasons. Pruitt's heart has been, and will always be, with Illinois. He knows his Illini didn't have the kind of year he hoped they would have. Now, all he has left is the Big Ten Tournament. With a good run there, he will get to continue wearing the orange and blue and continue playing for the Illini. Pruitt has not been shy about talking about how terrible he feels for this year's team's lack of success, as compared to Illini teams of the past. But he has made some memories that will last a lifetime. "My most memorable here was the Wake Forest game my freshman year. The crowd and Orange Krush were crazy that night, watching Deron come at Chris Paul, it was a game with a lot of energy. I really wasn't expecting it to be like that. I'd played in front of some big crowds before [in high school], but that was something very special to me. I was just glad to be a part of it," recalled Pruitt.
When reviewing Pruitt's career, free throws come up, there's not way around it. You might be surprised to learn that during his high school days, that was a strong part of his game, "In high school, I actually shot 80% from the line." Unfortunately for Pruitt, he could not translate that success at the line from high school to college. No doubt, fans could see the frustration and pain in his eyes when he could not knock down the shots from the charity stripe. When asked about it, he gave a shocking answer. "The biggest thing I feel is that I shoot better on the road than here at home. When I'm here, I start thinking about the crowd and I get this 'ugh' feeling, because I think they're wondering how I'm going to do when I get to the line. They haven't done it as much. I actually think the Indiana game helped me in some ways, I mean, that's the lowest I can get, missing two free throws like that at clutch time. So now every time I go to the line I think to myself nothing can be worse than that moment," Pruitt stated.
I was surprised with how sincere he was about the missed free throws. During the interview I could hear and see the hurt in his eyes. "I said what I said to the fans because I wanted to thank them. All those who stuck by me, and my teammates, even after the Indiana game, I really, really appreciate what they have done for me. It was crazy, in all my years of playing sports, I've never received so many hate emails before or gone out in public and have people talk about me like that. I wanted to win, I felt bad, I was the one there shooting, but so many people here really stood by me during that time," said Pruitt.
For those who really want to know what happened to the 80% free throw shooter, Pruitt was candid in his assessment. "During my freshman and sophomore year, I stop working on them. I knew if I was going to play, I would have to improve my post game and bang with people on the blocks. I just worked on scoring in the low-post; I did that more than anything. My freshman year, I just wanted to get on the court, that team was loaded. Last year, we had Warren Carter and he could shoot free throws, and we needed a low-post scoring threat then too," Pruitt explained.
The sad thing about this whole story is that sometimes the fans forget that these players are just kids, usually between 18 to 21 years old. Sure, they receive a free education through their scholarships and get to play big-time basketball, but that doesn't mean people should say or do hurtful things when success doesn't come as they would have hoped. As Pruitt's 6'11" frame leaned against the wall, talking to me, I could see in his eyes that he loves Illinois and wished the end of his career would have been better for the fans. "I just wish people knew how much it meant to me putting on this jersey each game. Starting with the Big Ten Tournament, we're going to try and keep this going," Pruitt said. Hopefully the team will put together a nice run in the conference tournament so the fans will get a chance to thank these young men for their efforts and dedication to the program.
Whenever the season does come to an end, Pruitt will take some time to look back and contemplate his next move. "After the season is over, since we didn't have a good year record wise, I will take a few days off to enjoy my teammates and then head to a couple of camps the week of April 4th-7th and then hopefully the big man camp in Orlando later this summer. I have a lot to do, but I will work very hard at it," said Pruitt. I know for a fact, after talking with Pruitt, that no matter where he goes in basketball, he will remain true to the orange and blue, despite how rough it may have been.