In recent years, the Assembly Hall became known as one of the toughest arenas for opposing basketball teams. The place was always filled with rabid, boistrous fans eager to support championship-caliber teams. While the Assembly Hall received the credit for the recognition, it was the fans who made it possible.
Unfortunately, the Assembly Hall is accoustically sensitive and absorbs more sound than most venues. When the place isn't filled, when the fans aren't aroused and engaged, it can begin to sound and feel more like a morgue than a basketball facility. Whatever home court advantage Illinois has had in the recent past may dissipate if the Illini basketball team can't generate excitement.
Starting center Mike Tisdale realizes the team's dismal 16-19 record last year had a deleterious effect on fan support.
"They have no reason not to (have doubts) after last year. You can't blame the fans. Last year didn't turn out like we wanted it to. We need to prove we are fun to come out and watch."
Coach Bruce Weber realizes student ticket sales is down, in part due to the struggling economy.
"We're down a little bit, especially with the students. Winning obviously cures a lot, but I think it's how we play, our identity. If we're a team that overachieves and plays hard and is somebody they can identify with, that is important.
"More than normal, we've tried to do stuff with the students on campus. We've done some extra events, got our face out there and getting people to feel good about it.
"I've talked to a lot of people, it's obvious the economy crunch. You have to make a decision on how do you spend your money. Kids are coming up and saying, 'Are you gonna be good, coach, I'm trying to decide whether to buy tickets.'"
Weber sees these first two games as an opportunity to win back the fans.
"I think people are kind of waiting to see. We've got a chance Friday and Sunday. If we play well, then word starts getting out. And then you play well again, and you keep it going. People get excited about it and can identify with you."
The quick turnaround from late Friday night to Sunday afternoon may be a hardship for players and fans alike, but its good practice for what lies ahead.
"We have kind of a tournament type setup with a game Friday night against Eastern Washington and come back Sunday afternoon with Texas A & M Corpus Christi. Your goal's always the NCAA tournament, and that's the type of setup you will have to have. Very quick turnarounds like the Big Ten Tournament. We have even tighter turnarounds at South Padre. So it's a big weekend for us.
"We'll learn alot about our team. It's a big weekend for Illini athletics with our game, Coach Harden's volleyball team has a huge weekend, Ohio State football and then come back on Sunday."
Illinois will be favored in both contests, but any opponent can present challenges for a young team still seeking confidence and fan support. Eastern Washington has the quickness at guard to give the Illini problems according to Weber.
"I've known the Eastern Washington coach Kirk Earlywine. He worked for Coach Majerus at one time, has some background with Indiana being around the Ball State, Muncie area, so I've gotten to know him.
"Last year as a first year coach, he was kind of putting the thing together. They're very versatile, they're gonna play a lot of people, they're gonna push the basketball. They have a small little zipper guard transfer from Texas Tech. He's gonna give us a handful. We had a little trouble with quickness Sunday against Lewis, so we're gonna have to do a better job containing the dribble.
"It'll be a nice test for us. The Lewis game was good preparation for us with all the ball screens and quickness. They have two bigs, but they can also go very small."
Weber is cautiously optimistic.
"We and the kids are excited about it. As a coach you always wish you had more time. We watched a lot of film of the Lewis game, and we hope the kids can make steps through that."
Tisdale is pragmatic in his appraisal, but he believes this team can develop into a fun group to support.
"I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered. The next couple games, if we do a good job of that, if we play hard and have a little fun, it'll be all right. Anytime you get a chance to win some games early and get some momentum going, it's good for the team. I hope we can get out to a good start and get a couple wins."
This team has better chemistry and understands the motion offense better than last year. If they can get some early wins and develop some confidence, they can enjoy a productive season.
This team may need fan support more than any team in the last ten years because of its youth and need for positive reinforcement. Without it the team may struggle, and talk of needing a cozier, louder basketball arena may resurface.