By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) There are more than 20,000 seats inside the United Center.
But Saturday afternoon, when the 12th-ranked Fighting Illini basketball team tips off against the Auburn Tigers, only about 13,000 of them are expected to be filled.
For an athletic department that has declared its designs on becoming “the king of Chicago,” that’s not exactly a crowning achievement for the University of Illinois. But, really, what do you expect when you schedule a game against a 5-6 basketball team from a “football school” that just lost at home to mighty Winthrop?
Fact is, my cell phone set to vibrate creates more of a buzz in Chicago than Auburn does.
Last week, I wrote a column urging Illinois to schedule the Kentucky Wildcats for a series at the United Center. I’ve earlier suggested bringing Notre Dame to the UC as a foe, while others have pushed for Marquette. However, according to reports, neither the Irish nor the Golden Eagles are said to be keen on such a matchup.
So what’s Illinois to do?
Well, in order to deepen Illinois’ footprint in the Windy City, I think Illini athletic director Mike Thomas needs to step up his Chicago game and bring in future opponents that are sexier than Auburn, UNLV and UIC – Illinois’ most recent United Center opponents.
Besides Kentucky, which remains at the top of my UC wish list, here are five other opponents that I’d like to see John Groce and the Illini butt heads with at the House that Michael Jordan built.
The programs have history at the United Center. Back in December 1999, when Roy Williams was still coaching Kansas and Lon Kruger was running the show at Illinois, the schools squared off at the UC with Illinois rolling to an 84-70 victory.
But beyond that, the programs have history, period. Namely, Bill Self. With Self’s Illini replacement Bruce Weber now off to Kansas State and Illinois AD Ron Guenther in retirement, the key lightning rods following Self’s departure for KU are gone. Self might not yet be willing step into the viper’s nest that Assembly Hall could be, but he might be willing to face the Illini in Chicago.
Why UCLA? Well, it’s UCLA.
In December 1996, Illinois battled the Bruins at the United Center with UCLA coach Steve Lavin rocking his Pat Riley look along the sidelines. The Illini won that game 79-63, and a repeat meeting between the two schools in Chicago would likely help warm up UC ticket sales.
Thanks to the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Illini could potentially end up with the Blue Devils on their schedule in any given year. That perhaps makes scheduling ACC foes outside the Challenge problematic. But the opportunity to get Duke – and Jabari Parker? – on the Illini schedule in Chicago game would be worth examining such problems.
Back in November 1999, a few weeks before routing Kansas at the UC, Illinois faced Duke at the United Center in the first year of the ACC-Big Ten schedule. The Blue Devils, powered by star freshman Jason Williams, outlasted the Illini and their star frosh Frank Williams for a 72-69 win. A UC rematch would no doubt be an electric affair.
Like Auburn, Florida is also an SEC “football” school. But unlike the Tigers, the Gators play some serious hoops as well thanks to coach Billy Donovan, he of the two national championships.
These days, UF has seemingly taken up permanent residence among the nation’s Top 20 teams and would make for a compelling opponent. Perhaps former Gators and Illini coach Lon Kruger could help broker a deal between the schools.
For schools located more than 1,660 miles apart, Illinois and Arizona have created a remarkable rivalry over the past dozen years.
Everyone, of course, knows about Illinois’ epic Elite Eight rally over the Wildcats to reach the 2005 Final Four. But four seasons earlier, the Illini and Arizona waged war in three games during the 2000-01 season. The first took place in the championship game of the Maui Classic (won by Arizona) and the last took place in the Elite Eight (also won by Arizona).
But the middle one was held at the United Center, a contest during which Illinois star Cory Bradford set an NCAA record with a three-pointer in his 74th consecutive game, Wildcats coach Lute Olson blew his top over the on-court antics of Illini jester Lucas Johnson and Illinois won 81-73.
That game had the UC filled to the rafters, which would be nice to see again. But we won’t this year. After all, Auburn is no Arizona.
Heck, this season, it’s no Winthrop.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.