COLUMN: Illini talent showcased in Big Ten play

By Jeff LaBelle

Favorite story:

The final weeks of Chris Hicks’ Illinois career deserved a story – a big one, by my reasoning. The reserve guard didn’t see a lot of game action, less than an hour total in his time at the University, but his personality and energy were a bright spot in an otherwise down year. Getting to know him and his family and documenting his closing moments, final shots and presenting him to his fellow Illini was a privilege and something I’ll remember forever. Three thousand words weren’t near enough. Good luck to Chris in the future.

Best game I covered:

The best game this season, as far as game-play is concerned, would be the Illini’s matchup against Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. In the final 3.8 seconds, Trent Meacham hit Chester Frazier for the winning shot, putting Illinois on top 64-63 and sending them through to the second round. The Illini fell to Wisconsin in the Tournament final.

The most entertaining game though, for weirder reasons, was the Illini’s home matchup against Indiana. Eric Gordon and Kelvin Sampson were not well-received as Assembly Hall came alive for one of the few times this year. Note: Sampson will be an assistant with the Milwaukee Bucks next year and Gordon, once drafted, will suit up in the NBA. Get ready Bulls fans.

Most challenging story:

There’s still plenty to learn from a reporting standpoint, obviously. Luckily, though, Dave Just and Mike Theodore have been around and some of their reporting instincts have rubbed off on me. On a more serious note, my biggest challenges came when the stories didn’t write themselves. Lesson: always ask excellent, insightful, amazing questions and this will be avoided.

Play of the year:

In this reporter’s opinion, the play of the year came in the team’s best game. Frazier’s layup against Penn State in round one of the Big Ten Tournament was huge. Down by one, if Frazier’s shot had missed, the team’s season would have ended then and there. Instead, Illinois rallied to the Tournament final. Really though, none of the plays were too important this year. Illinois missed a postseason berth for the first time since 1999.

Best quote:

Frazier on whether he’d miss any of the Big Ten Tournament due to nagging knee problems:

“Not unless somebody shot me in my head and I died. Then, maybe.”

Best interview:

I can’t pick one. Hicks and his family, Brian Randle, Alex Legion and Jeff Jordan. Frazier is in the mix, too. I don’t know, none of them were bad. Throw in assistant coach Jerrance Howard for kicks. He knows how to have fun.

Most telling off-the-court moment:

If anyone ever questions Calvin Brock’s strength – an all-out mistake first of all – please consider the following: the doors to the Ubben Basketball Complex were locked late in the season as players turned up for practice. This reporter was stuck outside, making phone calls. Brock showed up, was informed of the locked-door situation and stepped up to the building. The Illinois guard grabbed the handle, gave it a quick pull and ripped the door open. He opened a locked door. How does anyone do that? Crazy.

P.S. Michael Jordan was later rumored to have been inside the building. That would explain the security measure, I suppose.

Story line for ’08-’09:

Watch what unfolds with the guard situation next year. Illinois will get a boost from Jamar Smith, returning from an enforced year off, and Legion and are bringing back Demetri McCamey, Meacham, Frazier and Brock. Who gets the minutes?

The Illini will play small, but replacing Shaun Pruitt down low is essential. Bill Cole could have a breakout season after injuries limited him this year. Mike Tisdale is constantly putting on weight and could become a hefty center in time.