Basketball kickoff causes NCAA blowup

By Jeremy Werner

Bruce Weber was hoping Saturday’s basketball kickoff in Memorial Stadium would be popular. The coach believed staging a basketball practice immediately following Saturday’s Homecoming football game might help raise more money for Coaches vs. Cancer than last year’s “Pink Out” at Assembly Hall.

But the Illinois head coach was surprised The World’s Biggest Basketball Practice garnered so much national attention.

Several college coaches became angered that Illinois, Kentucky, Marshall and West Virginia were given permission by the NCAA to hold public events a week ahead of the official start of practices. The National Association of Basketball Coaches said a jump start may give programs a significant recruiting advantage since it can lure recruits a weekend ahead of the other Division I teams.

“I got a call from Tom Izzo,” Weber said. “He kind of joked, ‘Are you sitting down? Because I’m going to chew your butt.’ But once we explained what was going on, they understood.”

Because of the uproar, the NCAA is expected to ban future public preseason events, like Saturday’s practice, through emergency legislation on Oct. 29. Weber said the event was never meant to give the Illini a recruiting advantage. He said the program tried to host the practice on Sept. 13, but the proposal was rejected by the NCAA. Still, more than 15 highly touted recruits are expected be in attendance on Saturday.

Despite the clamor, the outdoor exhibition will still take place Saturday afternoon on a portable court behind the south end zone at Memorial Stadium immediately following the football game against Minnesota.

The practice will resemble last year’s Midnight Madness, featuring a three-point contest with the women’s team and a 15-minute scrimmage. There will be no dunk contest because of the portable hoops, much to the disappointment of the players.

Yet, the Illini are excited to play in front of a bigger crowd than they ever have before.

“It’s just a big experience, the football games,” sophomore guard Demetri McCamey said. “It’s packed with fans, and now we get to play in front of that. That’s just amazing.”

The practice is meant to help promote the Zook Zone towels. The orange towels are sold at Gameday Spirit, and $1 of each sold is donated to the charity Coaches vs. Cancer. Fans have the chance to purchase the playing surface from Flex Court Athletics through a silent auction on flexcourt.com.

“It’s just a fun event obviously to promote our program, do something different, out of the box, but at the same time promote Coaches vs. Cancer, the Zook Zone towels,” Weber said. “Hopefully if the weather cooperates … it will be a win-win for everybody.”