‘Madness’ kicks off season

Dee Brown celebrates on the court with teammates at Midnight Madness, the basketball team´s first official practice, at Assembly Hall on Friday. Josh Birnbaum

Dee Brown celebrates on the court with teammates at Midnight Madness, the basketball team´s first official practice, at Assembly Hall on Friday. Josh Birnbaum

By Courtney Linehan

Bruce Weber says he wants fans and players to put last season in the past. But through tournament highlight reels, clips of the Arizona game and unveiling the Final Four banner, reminders of the run that took Illinois to its first NCAA championship game filled Assembly Hall for Illini Basketball Madness on Friday night.

Midnight Madness got a facelift this year, as it moved up a few hours and south a few blocks. With new NCAA regulations allowing practices to start at 7 p.m. Friday – instead of the usual midnight kickoff – and the carry over from the 2005 National Championship run, the Illini drew 13,405 fans to Assembly Hall.

“For our students it’s early enough where they can still go out and have some fun, high school kids can come after the football game,” Weber said of the crowd. “There are even a lot of young kids; for families it’s not too late. I think it’s a good time.”

While the night kicked off with the women’s basketball team being introduced, having a three-point contest and playing a quick 10-minute scrimmage, the night focused heavily on men’s basketball. James Augustine, Dee Brown and Weber entered the floor from the top of the stands, swarmed by high-five hungry fans all the way to the floor.

Former Illini Kenny Battle was on hand, demanding a standing ovation for “the job they did last year,” before handing Brown the mic.

“It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t really talk when I got the mic, I didn’t know what to say,” Brown said. “That’s the reason why we’re so successful at home, because we’ve got beautiful fans who come out and show us wonderful support.”

Former Chicago Bulls announcer Ray Clay served as MC, and the Bucket Boys came down from Chicago to perform. But the basketball was the night’s highlight. The men’s team took to the floor for a 15-minute scrimmage. Sloppy mistakes demonstrated that it was certainly the day before practices got underway, as Illini fans got their first taste of the 2005-06 squad.

“We’ve got a lot of new faces, but we’ve also got some faces that have been on the bench and got experience,” Brown said. “Rich McBride shot the ball well tonight, Brian Randle showed how talented and athletic he is, Warren Carter did some good things, and you already know what James can do. The fans got to see what the guys can do.”

The players, both new and old, were excited to be back on the court. Randle said the team feeds off the energy in Assembly Hall, and despite a long day Friday they were excited for Madness.

“It doesn’t matter how tired we are, how much work we put in before hand, the moment we step in the Hall we get a new energy,” Randle said.

Brown said the highlight for him was just the fan support that flooded Assembly Hall.

“The fans, the turnout. Fourteen thousand to watch a scrimmage is unbelievable,” Brown said. “You can’t ask for anything more.”

Randle said it is that support that makes Assembly Hall such a tough place for opponents – and a great place for the Illini – to play.

“I don’t care if we got Wake Forest, UNC, Duke; we’ve got the best fans in America,” Randle said.