Each basketball season begins with a gala event in which Illinois fans can get their first glimpse of their beloved women's and men's teams. It marks the official beginning of formal practices.
As part of a unique marketing ploy, the basketball event will be preceded by the first ever volleyball game in the Assembly Hall featuring two highly rated teams in Illinois and Minnesota. With 125,000 free tickets given away, the Illini hope to set a national volleyball attendance record.
Illinois men's basketball coach Bruce Weber can't wait to get the season underway.
"It's exciting. Basketball is right around the corner. This opening practice, Illini Madness, has become a major event. It's grown and grown. People don't realize, but it's really important to the players. It's their premier, their Oscar night, walking down the red carpet. The first time as a freshman to be introduced, for a senior your last time."
Last year, the Illini held a brief scrimmage in Memorial Stadium at the conclusion of the Minnesota football game. Each year, something new is tried. Weber believes fan enthusiasm for both basketball and volleyball can produce a full house.
"Our school's done a great job. All our marketing, Chris Hanna, the SID office, we all get together and think something different. Sometimes, it's a little bit of a chance. The "Pinkout" was a question. There's a little bit of a fear factor anytime you try something new. But if you don't try something new, there's no excitement and people will stop coming."
Weber has taken his Illini players to several volleyball matches and can attest to the energy of the event.
"We're hoping for a great crowd. Kevin's volleyball team is in the top 20, I think 12th. The Minnesota team is also very good, ranked in the top 10. I think people realize when they come to a volleyball game how exciting it is. It's exciting at Huff, and I think it will be more exciting at Assembly Hall."
Illini Madness showcases Illini basketball talent, but Weber says the event is also important for recruiting. He hopes to have a number of young stars on campus, although other schools are pushing them to attend their own festivities.
"It's a big deal who you're gonna have. And really, it's become more and more a case of getting younger and younger kids here. It kind of impacts their first impression. It's a lasting one of what Illini basketball's about and what Illini Madness is about. You hope someday, if they're good enough and things work out, they come here and are waiting to have that shining moment."
There is tremendous excitement toward both the current Illini basketball teams. And the volleyball matchup features two great teams and the intrigue of former Illini coach Mike Hebert returning to campus. With all the tickets floating around, Weber encourages people to arrive early.
"It should be a fun night. If you want to get a good seat, get there early. The volleyball game is at 6:30pm, and then when it's over there will be about 15 minutes and then we get right into it. Coach Law's group and then ours get introduced, then the dunk contest and shooting contest, and then a little bit of a scrimmage. It should get over fairly early compared to years ago when it started at midnight."
The dunk contest is always a fan favorite. Right now, Weber is unsure who will participate. But he promises plenty of athleticism and acrobatics.
"We've got to talk about that. Definitely Brandon Paul will be in there as a newcomer. (Joseph) Bertrand, I'm not sure if he's gonna get there yet (due to injury). He may want to and be fired up. Obviously, he's the state champion last year at the high school level.
"And then Dominique (Keller) loves attention. His senior year, he'll definitely be fighting to get in there. Mike Davis is a high flyer, so we've got some pretty good athletes who will create some excitement with the dunk contest this year. Mike came out of nowhere as a freshman to win that thing. He's more long and elegant. I think some of these other guys are gonna be a little more explosive than him."
Illinois has utilized unique approaches to introduce the head coach in past events. Will Weber be making a grand entrance?
"I don't know. We don't have the final script yet. I'm sure they'll think of something and have some fun. There was one talk of me coming out of the ceiling. I'm not sure about that."