This weekend's Illini basketball game will be a big event on many levels. First of all, the Assembly Hall turns 50 on Saturday, and as important, it is the annual Senior Day that will see the final game be played for three mainstays, one transfer, and a seldomly used walk-on. But more on that later. The Assembly Hall has seen many different events in the history of its existence, and as a child, I remember seeing Barnum and Bailey's Circus in there and wondering how neat the place looked, seemingly looking like a spaceship in the middle of a campus. Over the course of its time, it has seen many Illini basketball games, and who could forget Eddie Johnson's shot to defeat Michigan State (1979), Andy Kaufman's last second shot to defeat Iowa (1993), or during the magical season of 2004-05, the night that the Illini knocked off Wake Forest to rise to #1 in the nation, a lofty perch they would remain at for nearly the entire season. (Sorry Indiana, you have had 3 chances this season to hold the top spot, and you have blown them all). Of course, Brandon Paul's 43 points to take down Ohio State last season also stands out, as well as a couple weeks ago when the Illini knocked off #1 Indiana to subsequently save their season. The building is set to undergo a massive renovation after next year's basketball season, and early graphics that I have seen will make the interior look a whole lot different. However, the exterior will look much the same as it has over the past 50 years.
One of the main tenants of the Assembly Hall over these past 50 years are the various basketball teams of the Fighting Illini. On Saturday, the Illini ( will take the court for the final time in the 2012-13 season (vs. Nebraska. 4:15 pm CT, BTN), and with that, 5 Illini will be playing their final game on the Assembly Hall court. This group of seniors have been through a lot, seeing some success, a lot of frustration and disappointment, and endured a coaching change at the end of last season. One by one, I will briefly recognize and analyze each one of these seniors, and their value to the Illinois program through their tenure.
The Illini currently are 20-9 overall and 7-8 in the Big Ten, and really could use this win against Nebraska to secure their ticket into the upcoming NCAA Tournament.
D. J. Richardson - The last in a succession of players from the Peoria area, Richardson had a good freshman season, then slid downward for the next two seasons. This year, D. J. has had a resurgence, and is responsible for quite a few Illini wins. He has proven that he can still shoot from long range, and even though he has fallen out of favor with some of the Illini faithful, he still has had a pretty good career at Illinois.
Brandon Paul - Brandon has had a steady career at Illinois, and has also had some monster games, most notably the aforementioned 43 point effort against Ohio State last season. Paul will go down as one of the more prolific scorers in Illini history, and probably has the best shot out of all the outgoing seniors to continue his game at the next level in the NBA. With other scorers, namely Richardson, stepping up this season, the Illini have not had to rely on Brandon as much this season. During the famous slide early this season, Paul disappeared, but has resurfaced at the right time.
Tyler Griffey - Tyler has had an up and down career as an Illini, seeing a little action as a freshman, then being pressed into service as a sophomore to play a lot of minutes. As a junior, Griffey's playing time diminished once again, but when the coaching change occurred at the end of last season, he once again has seen a lot of action. Now out of the starting linuep, his confidence disappeared, thus decreasing his scoring output. Griffey may very well be remembered for slipping away from Indiana's Cody Zeller and scoring the winning layup at the buzzer to upset the top-ranked Hoosiers. Griffey is a very nice kid, and his honest and pleasant demeanor will be missed.
Sam McLaurin - A fifth-year transfer from Coastal Carolina, McLaurin was brought in by John Groce to supplement the vacancy left by Meyers Leonard, who took his game to the NBA at the end of last season. McLaurin brings a presence to the inside that has been very positive, and is now in the starting lineup, or if not, one of the first players off the bench. Sam has given the Illini some quality minutes, and while not a scorer, does the job that Groce asks him to do on the boards.
Kevin Berardini - A seldom used redshirt junior, Berardini has decided to go out with this class. The job of a walk-on is not glamorous, and the time that they put in at practice for as little playing time that they get may not seem worth it to most. But Kevin has kept a great attitude from it, and he transferred to Illinois at the end of his freshman year, where he played at Loyola Marymount.
The Illini women's basketball team also was celebrating senior night on Thursday evening at the Assembly Hall, and this group of seniors have not had a very good career as a team, although one of those players, Karisma Penn, will go down as one of the best players in the history of the program. Penn has been a double-double machine, recording 41 of those in her Illini career, including another one against Ohio State. The Illini, unfortunately couldn't get the job done against the Buckeyes, losing 64-53, sending these seniors out on a sour note. However, this Illini team are sending the seniors off in much better shape than when they came into the program. A lot of this can be attributed to new coach Matt Bollant, who has brought a new style and energy to the program. The Illini currently sit at 16-11 overall and 9-6 in the Big Ten, their best marks in both categories in several years. Along with Penn, Adreienne GodBold also played her final game as an Illini. GodBold came to Illinois with a lot of potential, and lived up to that hype for most of her time in Champaign. However, a setback occurred early this season, when she was deemed academically ineligible and had to sit out the first part of the season. Since her return, the Illini have bounced back and are battling for their first NCAA Tournament berth in several years. A third senior, Kersten Magrum, is done at Illinois, due to sustaining several concussions over the past couple of years. Magrum also had a decent career at Illinois, but sadly, it was cut short due to the injuries. The Illini will conclude the regular season on Sunday when they travel to West Lafayette to battle the Purdue Boilermakers (3:00 pm CT, BTN), a team that they have had a lot of trouble against in the past few seasons. The women's version of the Big Ten Tournament begins next Thursday at the Sears Centre in suburban Hoffman Estates.
Even though the weather outside doesn't put you in the frame of mind for football, Illini coach Tim Beckman officially begins his second season as head coach on Monday with the start of spring workouts. The coaching staff has been overhauled, and some new faces will be stepping up this year for the Illini, but don't count on it adding to wins just yet. This team will be young and inexperienced, but hopefully some of the junior college transfers coming into the program will be able to be a stopgap and at least make them relevant. What this means for the future of Beckman is too early to tell, but it cannot get much worse than ie ended last season. The annual spring game will be on Friday night, April 12th this season, a change from the Saturday afternoon that it has been on for the last few years.
Some of the minor sports get overlooked in favor of the major, revenue producing sports, but these so called non-revenue sports have been among the most successful lately. A special congratulations go out to the women's indoor track and field team, who won the Big Ten Championship last weekend. Coach Tonja Buford-Bailey, herself a standout athlete at Illinois, has really done a great job with this team, and is now reaping the rewards of that teaching. Ashley Spencer, who had a great freshman year on the track for the Illini, is continuing that trend as a sophomore, and helped the Illini get their first conference title since 1996.