Whether or not these Illini were consistent within individual aspects of the game last week, one thing they did consistently was entertain. Tuesday’s clash with IUPUI was likely closer than it needed to be, but Illinois pulled out a win 85-77 in a bit of a thrilling game; Saturday, the Illini held the nation’s top scorer in check until it didn’t matter and won easily, 92-73 over Central Michigan with some big highlight plays throughout.
Despite these wins, comments I’ve seen on Twitter or wherever made it seem like the team was in danger of being cancelled rather than on a four-game win streak. At the end of the day, basketball is entertainment, and when the team you’re following is winning things are good. So, Saturday, I stepped back from really covering the team and decided to just enjoy a game for what it is: entertainment.
With empty seats abound in the upper reaches of State Farm Center, Illinois has gotten rather creative with their ticket sales. One package they offer is the “Framily” pack, which offers four tickets and $20 of concessions vouchers. There are a few games this package is available for, and for the Central Michigan game the cost (after tax) was just $61. So, for much less than it would have cost to go to a movie and get snacks, I was able to take in the game with my wife, our 9-month-old daughter, another couple, and their two young children. In terms of value, it was a fantastic deal.
The newly renovated State Farm Center is truly beautiful. From the entrance, which features a stunning retrospective of Illini basketball history, to the upgraded seats throughout the arena, the whole experience has become much more enjoyable. It’s aesthetically pleasing, it’s comfortable, and it’s fun. I found one problem in my time as a fan: only some bathrooms actually have changing tables. I had to trek my daughter halfway around the entire bowl to a “Family Restroom” before I could set her down to clean a dirty diaper. On our hike we saw another couple using a folding table as an ad hoc changing table, so I know I’m not the only one frustrated by this oversight in the renovation.
Restroom issues aside, everyone, kids included, really enjoyed the game. If Illinois had played subpar defense, as it did against IUPUI, I’m not certain we would have had as much fun. But, from our vantage point high up in the 200 level, the energy was still good and we felt part of the electricity in the building as Tracy Abrams lit up the scoreboard.
Abrams really did his part to give us something to cheer for. We watched him sink shot after shot in the first half, scoring 23 of 31 in the first 20 minutes alone. His effort, in particular, seemed to put the game well out of reach for the visitors early on. Much attention was paid to Marcus Keene leading up to the game, and for good reason, as he came in as the nation’s leading scorer, averaging 31 points per game. But after a quick 8 points, he was effectively neutralized by Illinois’s guards, scoring just 4 more before halftime. He would finish the game with 25, which seems impressive except for the fact that most of his points came when the Illini had already extended to a 20-point lead.
Beyond Abrams, the Illini seemed hardly to put a foot wrong on Saturday, making the game even more enjoyable for us up in the rafters. Leron Black was everywhere, a whirling dervish of physicality, scoring a career-high 21 points; Maverick Morgan looked more confident than he had all year, grabbing 7 boards and scoring 11; Mike Thorne loomed large around the basket and cleaned, grabbing 11 rebounds. Even some of the players who went quiet against CMU still played a good game. Michael Finke and DJ Williams each had just 2 points, but played important defensive shifts; Jalen Coleman-Lands’ hot shooting was cooled, but his athleticism and rangy defense were still impressive. The biggest star for the Illini was also not on his A game, as Malcolm Hill scored a measly 10 points (after 32 against IUPUI), but it was a relief to see that he was not as necessary for the Illini to get the win.
All in all, the Illini were entertaining, and I don’t know what else I could ask for from them. For the value, I’d love to turn these kind of “Framily” games into a yearly outing for us. Though the price will get higher once our kids are too big to sit on our laps, I can think of few other outings that would make for a better or more pocket-friendly afternoon.