Strong season has Illini basketball fans excited for March Madness

Car horns and fans welcomed him as Bruce Weber walked down Green Street after strolling out of Gameday Spirit on Tuesday afternoon.

It wasn’t the first time the Illinois head coach has been greeted warmly this season. But with Illini fan excitement at its highest point this year, the echoing shouts…Car horns and fans welcomed him as Bruce Weber walked down Green Street after strolling out of Gameday Spirit on Tuesday afternoon.

It wasn’t the first time the Illinois head coach has been greeted warmly this season. But with Illini fan excitement at its highest point this year, the echoing shouts and honks offered a fanfare of appreciation to the Phelan Coach of the Year finalist.

So Weber waved back and smiled.

“We’ve had a good season, probably better than all the feedback I got, better than the expectations from the fans,” Weber said during a teleconference Tuesday. “I think we created some excitement. I think the players have enjoyed each other. They got a taste of success.”

These days, Weber and the men’s basketball players are walking heroes around campus after the Illini rode their second biggest in-conference improvement in school history to a No. 2 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. After a 16-19 overall performance last year, a mediocre campaign this time around appeared likely to many. Instead, Illinois jumped in national rankings and is all but a lock to make the NCAA Tournament field on Sunday.

Some fans, because of last year’s blowup, jumped the boat.

Orange Krush Foundation President Myles Hastings, for example, knew the 2008-09 version of the Illini basketball team would be a tough sell to potential members after last year’s fallout. Orange Krush fell back on words like “potential” and the “great history of Illinois basketball,” as did many others in general conversation.

“Coming off the worst season in Illini history, it was tough,” Hastings said. “What we had to sell was not great.

“I’d be lying if I said I knew Mike Davis would come along as quickly as he has,” he added. “But I honestly thought we’d be in the middle of the pack, towards the top of that middle. I thought we’d make it to both tournaments, and I thought we’d make a good run in them.”

Hastings has it right so far. Though Krush membership this year was roughly half of last year’s count, they weren’t the only ones seeing a decline. By season’s end, there were 10 fewer sellouts at the Assembly Hall this season than last.

Weber partly blamed the tanking economy early on. Trent Meacham said last year’s product was so bad he didn’t blame people for turning their backs. None of that really matters now.

Indianapolis and Conseco Fieldhouse are gearing up for an Illinois fan invasion Friday. While there are still tickets available to every session – including $25 tickets to Big Ten students – Friday evening’s round is booking fast, with Purdue and the Illini both huge draws.

John Dedman, director of communications at the Indiana Sports Corporation, expects a huge turnout decked in orange and blue.

“Illinois has traditionally had a very strong showing back to the days when the Final Four team came through Indianapolis,” Dedman said. “Their fan base is great. Students, alums, the loyal following that packs your home court every game. We expect them to come out like they always do.

“Last year, as a 10-seed they made it all the way to the end and their crowd got bigger every round,” he added. “Now of course, this year as the 2-seed, we feel like they’re going to be here from day one out in full force.”

Dedman said he expects fans from all over to pack for four- or five-day trips because the conference is so competitive. Only three teams – Northwestern, Iowa, and Indiana – finished with sub-.500 conference records, making the finals pairing difficult to call.

Gameday Spirit is already gearing up in case the Illini advance to the finals and win the whole thing. Cory Shumard, the Green Street location store manager, said he has orders ready to be placed the very second the buzzer sounds, should Illinois win it all.

“You have to be ready. That’s the nature of our business,” Shumard said. “There’s so much planning. If you’re superstitious, don’t get into retail. We have to have orders in place for if, when scenarios. Hopefully, we’re fortunate enough on Monday to be talking about a Big Ten Tournament title.

“We’re excited about what kind of noise this team can make in March Madness. Let’s hope all those purchase orders come to fruition.”

At least one of his customers, Weber, is hoping the same thing.