By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) It’s been so long since the IHSA boys’ basketbal state tournament left Champaign that when it was last held in town, the high school players in the Class of 2015 weren’t even born yet.
Neither were those in the Class of 2014, for that matter.
And that’s simply far too long.
“It should have never left,” Big Ten Network analyst and former University of Illinois point guard Stephen Bardo told Champaign’s WCIA 3 News last week when asked about the state tournament’s exodus to Peoria in 1995. “It was a huge draw.”
And after years of decreasing buzz and diminishing crowds, I believe the tournament potentially could be that again – but only if it returns to Champaign and the soon-to-be-refurbished State Farm Center.
Last week, the IHSA announced that it’s accepting bids from cities wishing to host the state championships from 2016 to 2020, which prompted the tourism bureau “Visit Champaign County” and the University of Illinois to say that they will be working together to bring the finals back.
Until Peoria lured the event away 19 years ago with lower hotel prices and an interactive “March Madness Experience” at its Civic Center, the state tournament had called Champaign its home for decades. It was first hosted at cozy Huff Hall and then later at cavernous Assembly Hall after the Fighting Illini’s iconic basketball arena opened in 1963.
That spaceship-shaped structure – now known as State Farm Center – went on to become the premier amateur basketball arena in Illinois. And once its $165 million renovation is finished in time for the 2016-’17 season, it just might be state’s premier basketball arena, period.
Upon completion of the massive project, which got underway this spring and will be completed in stages without displacing the Illini, the State Farm Center will feature a new grand entrance and its “B” and C” sections will have blue seats replacing the current gray ones, while the arena’s lower bowl, known as “A” section, will have been rebuilt and reconfigured with orange seating for the Orange Krush student section.
The overhauled venue will also include areas for club seating and luxury boxes, central air-conditioning, hand railings in all aisles and an upgraded scoreboard. Additionally, a fully rehabbed concourse will include new concessions, expanded restrooms and a Hall of Fame.
That sounds like it will be great for college basketball games. And it sounds like it could be fantastic for a high school state tournament.
“I’ve always said and I’ve written it before that it should have stayed in Champaign,” former Chicago Sun-Times preps columnist Taylor Bell told the Champaign News-Gazette in 2013 while lamenting the shrinking interest and excitement level seen at the boys’ tournament in recent seasons. “I haven’t been to Peoria for the last few years, but I was there for the first several years. They did a good job and a wonderful job with the hotels, fans and the banquet for the teams. I thought they deserved to keep it. Champaign just frittered it away. It’s a shame because the tournament belongs in the Assembly Hall. Assembly Hall is a masterpiece, and Carver Arena is just another gym.”
Bell is right. Even without the renovations, the home of the Illini home has always been Illinois’ best home for its state tournament.
As a high school student during the early 1990s, I cheered on my alma mater Bradley-Bourbonnais during both the 1992 and ’93 Elite Eight back when “Getting to the Hall” was a statewide rallying cry. Playing on the Big Ten court of the state’s flagship school held great aura, so much more than playing at Carver Arena, which I’ve visited several times.
That’s no offense to Peoria. It’s just the truth. And once the renovations at a gleaming, modernized State Farm Center are finished – or nearly finished by March 2016 – it will be even truer.
This past spring, Illinois athletic director Mike Thomas said that getting the university and the Champaign-Urbana community to embrace the state tournament is “kind of two-headed monster, so to speak.” It now appears, however — based on recent statements by Thomas (who wisely wants to the tournament to focus on its games rather than side attractions), Illini coach John Groce (who has his own selfish reasons for wanting the state’s best teams to play in Champaign) and Champaign-Urbana officials (who likely regret having lost the tournament in the first place) — that those heads are coming together to help bring the state tournament back to its old home so Illinois’ prep players and fans can fully enjoy the Illini’s new one.
Just the way it should be.