The big confrontation between Illinois and Michigan State would create huge anticipation and excitement regardless. But having ESPN College GameDay (sponsored by State Farm) using Champaign as its Saturday headquarters makes the day unique. Rece Davis, Jay Bilas, Hubert Davis and Digger Phelps will be on hand to hype the big game as well as make Illinois the national focus for the day.
Illini coach Bruce Weber is both excited and grateful for the opportunity.
"First I want to thank John (Althoff) because he was very instrumental in us landing GameDay. His son is a senior manager and does a tremendous job. Through our relationship with his son, we've developed a good relationship with John.
"Obviously having State Farm major headquarters in Bloomington, I think they're proud GameDay is in Champaign. Hopefully we can live up to what we expect will be a tremendous crowd for this event and the game that night. We're very excited about it. It's a great honor. I hope we can live up to all the expectations."
Weber reminds there are numerous benefits of hosting GameDay.
"No doubt recruiting. It's all day from the Assembly Hall. It's the last game of the evening. Even if you're running around or have a high school game and tune into ESPN, we're still on or they're showing highlights or cutting into Sports Center. You get great national exposure.
"I also hope it's a motivator for our kids. You have a top 5 team coming in who has smacked us 5 straight times I believe. I hope that adds a little motivation to it. It's just a great exposure for the university, for Orange Krush, the fans. We have a special program here, and we get to show it off for a weekend. I hope it helps in a lot of ways.
"There's a lot of hype. This is a great opportunity for our program to make a step, to get a win. It keeps us in second place and keeps us competitive. You can't say enough about what Coach (Tom) Izzo has done there. You could argue, with five Final Fours in 11 years, it's one of the best in the country. There's a lot of stuff at stake."
Illini players have noticed the excitement around campus all week. They plan to take in part of the morning festivities.
"It should be fun," Mike Davis admits. "I'm going to the morning show, check it out to see the attendance. I think most all of us will probably go there. Wherever I go, people are asking how I feel about it. There's extra pressure on us. You've just got to embrace it and enjoy it."
Bill Cole feels the same way.
"I'm just enjoying it. The atmosphere around the program right now is great. We're getting a lot of national attention because of it. We've got to use that to our advantage and see it as an opportunity. We can beat a good Michigan State team if we're together and we play right."
Demetri McCamey is showing signs of stepping up as a leader. He talks more like a mature veteran than an impressionable youngster.
"This is just like the NCAA's. It's gonna be a good experience for the young guys and the fans. It's gonna be tremendous, but at the same time we've got to treat it like a normal game and come out and play with intensity and focus like we're capable of against a good Michigan State team."
The word "good" is an understatement. The Spartans have size, strength, athleticism, balance and quickness. They will be tough to beat even if their starting point guard Kalin Lucas sits out the game with a high ankle sprain. Weber doesn't want to see anyone injured.
"I hope Lucas is healthy and gets to play and yet we can still find a way to beat them. They're gonna still run the same stuff. If he can't play, their depth is hurt. He's a go-to guy. He's the returning Conference Player Of The Year. He's a potential All-American. It hurts them, but if we think we're gonna win the game, that's another story.
"You've got experience. You've got guys who played in the Final Four. Their run of road games they've won is just amazing over the last couple seasons. These guys are not gonna back down. They're gonna keep playing.
"They've got lots of weapons. They've got inside threats, they've got outside threats, they've got athletes, they guard you, they push it, they rebound. Whether he plays or not, we've got to match their toughness and intensity."
Davis respects Lucas's backup Korey Lucious.
"It doesn't matter. Lucious is playing real well for them too. We've got to prepare for Lucious. He's just as quick, just as good. He gets to the basket and can shoot threes. No matter whether Lucas or Lucious plays, it doesn't matter."
McCamey spoke along similar lines.
"They're a tremendous team. Korey Lucious is the backup point guard, and he's a very good player. So even if he doesn't play, it's not gonna be easy."
Davis and center Mike Tisdale have a battle on their hands tomorrow. MSU has strong, athletic bigs to battle them on the boards. Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe, Draymond Green, Garrick Sherman and Derrick Nix will take turns banging on and boxing out the Illini bigs. Davis knows the Illini must come prepared for war on the boards.
"They rebound so hard, they crash the glass. They do a good job going over your back. They just kind of nudge you a little bit. They're big and get good position on you. Iowa outrebounded us, so I know Coach is pretty upset about that. We're gonna have to rebound if we're gonna win."
The Spartans also have several outstanding wings, including Durrell Summers and Chris Allen. Cole will have the dubious assignment of guarding both the 6'-8" Morgan and the smaller wings at different times.
"They always rotate their lineups pretty good. So I have a chance to guard a little bit of everything. I'll probably start out on Raymar if he starts, or maybe Durrell Summers. It should be a good matchup game for me. Whenever a guard-on-guard screen happens, we usually switch anyway. You've got to be ready to guard anybody during a game and not just your man."
The Illini played poorly at East Lansing earlier in the season according to Weber.
"We've made improvements as a team. We're light years ahead of where we were the first time we played Michigan State. I didn't think we played very well in that game. Part of it was Michigan State and the crowd.
"We're way better defensively. We're leading the league in field goal percentage defense. The questions are still rebounding, second chance points."
Another question is finding other scorers besides McCamey and Tisdale, who tweaked a knee at Iowa but should be ready Saturday. Weber is hoping several Illini can help out.
"It would be nice if we get D.J. (Richardson) some open shots. Even Billy, a spot-up three here and there to spread the defenses. Somehow we've got to get Brandon Paul to figure out good shots and bad shots.
"I think he's trying too hard. He's had some good days in practice, but it hasn't transferred to the game yet. He's the key if we're gonna make some progress because he can handle the ball, he can pass, he can create. He's just got to figure out when to go and when not to go.
"I'm trying to stay positive with him and talk to him. He has had a great attitude. I just hope sooner than later it comes about in a game also.
"Mike Davis was All-Conference for us last year. Some of it was rebounding, but he got some points for us last year. He's got to find ways to get some runouts, some putbacks, his little hooks, a spot-up shot like Tisdale. And then Tyler (Griffey) can shoot the ball.
"So we have some guys that get it. We just have to get some transition, some penetration, hit people for some open shots. It just seems like we don't do that."
Cole wants some payback for what happened in East Lansing.
"I don't think we played very well against Michigan State. So I think we need another chance to prove we don't just beat the bad teams in the Big 10."
Richardson summed up the feelings of the team and the Illini Nation.
"The campus is gonna be crazy all day, and we need to come out and get a win."