Basketball in a pandemic: What State Farm Center is like on game day

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Kenyon Edmond

The State Farm Center, located at 1800 S. First St. in Champaign, sits on April 3, 2019.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

The last time I was at State Farm Center was on a Friday night in February of 2020. No. 20 Illinois was hosting No. 9 Maryland, and the winner would take sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.

As soon as fans were allowed into the building, the Orange Krush section quickly filled up with eager students. By tip-off, the stadium was a sea of orange.

The Terps would ultimately go on to win the game, but the Orange Krush was loud and impactful the entire night. I’ve been to a majority of Big Ten arenas, and State Farm Center that night was the second loudest building I had been in, behind only Purdue’s Mackey Arena.

Fast forward to November of 2020 and the scene inside the space station-like building is entirely different. There are no fans lining up to get in hours before the game because the Big Ten does not allow fans at games this year. Family members are also not in attendance. Media and PR members are socially distanced throughout the 100 level, all donning masks.

The vibe is eerie. Pre-game feels somewhat normal with the loud rap music still being played and players dancing on the court. But, the unusualness sets in once the Illini go to the locker room. When they re-enter onto the court, there is no wave of crowd noise. There is no band to play the fight song. The visiting team gets announced with no boos or students yelling “sucks” after each name is called.

Before the Illinois starting lineup gets announced, they still show a hype video on the jumbotron, which is frankly very well done this year. Next, the starters’ names are called, and you hear the cheers from the Illini players and nothing else. I naturally expect a loud roar after listening to “from Chicago, number 11, Ayooooo Dosunmuuu”, but this season there won’t be one.

During the game, I actually enjoy the quietness of the gym. Despite being in the 100 level, the noise from the bench is apparent. I love listening to assistant coach Chin Coleman telling players where to be when a certain set is being run. After Coleman Hawkins had a defensive lapse in Friday’s win over Ohio, you could hear head coach Brad Underwood yell to his bench “get him out of there” as he stormed down the socially-distanced seats and pulled forward Zach Griffith up from his chair.

In an odd way, the role of bench players is more important than ever this season. They have to be the ones that create the noise that brings energy to the players on the court. The Ohio bench was loud and adamant early in Friday’s game, which rallied the team. When Illinois went on a run, their bench was up and energetic.

I’m also a big proponent of all the trash-talking that is detectable. On Thursday, Kofi Cockburn blocked a shot beneath the basket I was by, and he loudly yelled “get that (expletive) out of here.” When Adam Miller went to shoot free throws in the second half of Friday’s game, you could hear a “shin guards” chirp from the Ohio bench (referencing Miller’s leg sleeves).

Basketball stadiums across the country won’t be the same this season or for the foreseeable future with the ongoing pandemic. It’s a bummer Orange Krush does not get to experience the best Illini team since 2005 when they have been supporting this program through its ups and plenty of recent downs. And, it’s weird for me to sit in a stadium and not hear a roar after a Dosunmu transition bucket. But, after the hardships of the past few months, we are lucky to have any semblance of a college basketball season. And on Wednesday, I felt very blessed to be one of the 132 members attending the opener.

@BrandonSimberg

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