A win over Notre Dame would cap off State Farm Center spectacle

By Alex Roux

Hardly anything has gone according to plan for Illinois basketball this season.

The Illini got off to their worst start to a season in 50 years, and now sit at 3-4 entering December. The only projected starter to avoid injury so far is Malcolm Hill. And their five-game stint in Springfield will be remembered most for its poor attendance and even poorer play.

For head coach John Groce, his players and Illini fans, it would be nice if something would actually unfold smoothly this season. It would be nice if, for the first time since last season’s surprise victory at Michigan State, good vibes reverberated around the program.

Wednesday is the grand re-opening of State Farm Center, highlighted by a tribute and court dedication to legendary Illinois basketball coach Lou Henson. The evening will also feature a primetime matchup between Notre Dame and Illinois as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

The Irish are the first Power 5 team to visit State Farm Center in nonconference play in three years. The combination of the renovation, the Henson dedication and the marquee opponent means Dec. 2 has been circled on calendars since the game was announced back in May. Even the Illini’s slow and injury-plagued start to the season can’t dampen the excitement surrounding Wednesday night’s festivities.

But there’s no getting around the fact that Wednesday’s aftertaste will be extremely bittersweet if the Illini don’t open the new State Farm Center with a win. Illini fans just endured one of the most tumultuous sports months possible: It saw their athletic director fired, their football team roll over multiple times and several basketball players struggle with injuries.

Not to mention losing at the sparkling new State Farm Center would be a bad omen for an arena where a decade ago, the Illini owned a 33-game home winning streak. It used to be unthinkable for the Illini to fall at home; now, it’s all too common.

Not only does Groce’s team — in danger of racking up a nearly insurmountable number of early-season losses — need a win Wednesday, the entire Illinois basketball community needs it. It’s time to lift the spirits surrounding a program that’s been plagued by disappointment and injury in the last calendar year.

The much-needed victory won’t come easy against the Irish, who were three points away from the Final Four last year when Kentucky ended their magical season. Notre Dame entered the year ranked No. 19, but close losses to Alabama and Monmouth have dropped coach Mike Brey’s team to 4-2 and out of the Top 25.

All-American guard Jerian Grant is gone for the Irish, and so is fellow NBA draft pick Pat Connaughton. But big man Zach Auguste and point guard Demetrius Jackson — who committed to Notre Dame over Illinois in 2012 — remain to headline a skilled, albeit not very deep, Irish roster.

Groce will get a front row seat as his team looks to contain his former recruit. Jackson is averaging 18.3 points per game and joins Kris Dunn and Monte Morris on the list of elite point guards the Illini have faced in the season’s first month.

If Illinois plays as well as it did in the first 32 minutes of its 11-point loss to No. 5 Iowa State Saturday, you have to like their chances to beat Notre Dame. But if the Illini fade down the stretch again, the State Farm Center debut will probably be spoiled with a loss.

A major factor in the Illini’s collapse Saturday was the absence of senior center Mike Thorne Jr., who didn’t play in the second half after limping off with a knee injury. Fans’ worst fears were realized soon after when it was announced Thorne could miss the remainder of the season with a torn left meniscus.

Groce wouldn’t rule out a late-season return for Thorne on Tuesday, but Illinois will have to forge on after enduring the latest in an unprecedented string of injuries. With a depleted frontcourt, a season that was already mired in uncertainty becomes murkier.

For a couple of hours Wednesday, the Illini have a chance to make everyone forget what a painful — literally and figuratively — season it’s been so far. The modern State Farm Center will be alive in honor of a beloved coach, and it will be a spectacle.

It’s only fitting to cap it all off with a W.

Alex is a senior in AHS.

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