Illini Madness opens season

Illini Madness opens season

For those who watched Illinois lose to Washington in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last March, it was an unexpected sight. Fans were at least looking for a trip to the Sweet 16. It was all about keeping Dee Brown and James Augustine in an Illini uniform for as long as possible.

But the chances for the dynamic duo with a school-record 114 victories ran out. Ever since then, fans and players alike started gearing up for the 2006-07 campaign. While the year is certain to be anything but easy, the goal will be to try and limit the effects of Brown and Augustine’s absence.

“We’ve got to stay focused – don’t look too far ahead in the season,” said senior forward Warren Carter, who will face a challenge as Augustine’s replacement at power forward. “Prepare, take one practice at a time, one game at a time, whatever people need to work on individually, but also we’re going to find out different things and get better at it as a team.”

The men’s basketball team will kick off its season tonight with Illini Madness at the Assembly Hall. Doors open at 8 p.m. while highlight videos and a number of performances will begin shortly after. The team will scrimmage and have a three-point contest and dunk contest beginning at 9 p.m. This year’s Illini Madness marks the first time fans needed to pick up tickets in advance for the free event. All tickets have been distributed.

Former Chicago Bulls announcer Ray Clay will serve as master of ceremonies, while “Entourage’s” Jeremy Piven will be in attendance and be involved in the event.

Although Illini Madness is fun for the fans, players say they get just as excited about it.

“We love it; when you have fans there it makes the intensity level that much harder, so I think everybody is going to compete hard and give the fans a good show,” sophomore guard Jamar Smith said.

For the Illinois players, Illini Madness puts an end to all the tiring preseason workouts and conditioning they have been doing since summer.

“We’ve been working hard the past six weeks, and getting a chance to have some fun in front of them is always a good thing,” Carter said.

After countless wind sprints and nearly daily three-mile runs along St. Mary’s Road, the Illini have learned a thing or two, sophomore Trent Meacham said.

“I think we’re just pushing each other,” said the Dayton transfer. “That’s one thing this preseason, we’ve just really been pushing each other. We have times in conditioning, but not just to beat the times, but to beat each other.”

Sharp-shooter Smith sees it the same way. Smith, who has strengthened his leadership role on the court, along with his vocal presence, said the 2005-06 team had chemistry but said it was riddled with “cliques.”

This year, though, the team chemistry is much better than it was, he said. The chemistry has also made the team compete harder.

“Nobody wants to lose, even if we’re just playing a game of horse at the beginning of practice,” Smith said. “Everybody at the end of practice goes at it really hard and hates losing.”

Illini Madness contests

Along with a scrimmage, Illini Madness will feature a three-point contest and a slam dunk contest. Smith, Meacham, sophomore guard Chester Frazier and junior guard Chris Hicks will compete in the three-point contest.

“That can go either way, because shooting is such a streaky thing,” Carter said of the contest. “I definitely want to say Jamar (will win). When you shoot 40 percent your first year in college, you can’t beat that.”

And although Carter will not be in either contest and said he was “retired” from the dunk contest, he said the results should be interesting. Redshirt sophomore guard Calvin Brock and redshirt junior forward Brian Randle will compete for the title. Carter believes Randle will win, while Meacham is banking on Brock.

“Calvin is really excited for the dunk contest, since he didn’t get to do it last year,” Meacham said.

“We have some good dunkers, but he’ll probably have some creative things,” he added.

Guarantee your seats

The basketball and volleyball teams are joining forces.

Any student who attends the volleyball game versus Ohio State at 7 p.m., tonight at Huff Hall and brings their Illini Madness ticket will get it stamped at the door, guaranteeing them a ‘B’ section seat at Assembly Hall for the basketball event.