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December 29, 2012
CHICAGO - Driving north into the city on the Dan Ryan Expressway, you pass a "Northwestern: Chicago's Big Ten team" billboard. Turn on the radio to one of the two sports radio stations and you hear talk about the Chicago Bears (the playoffs are on the line Sunday) or even the White Sox and Cubs.
Yet, it was the No. 12 Illinois basketball team that actually played that day and ended a three-game losing streak at the United Center with what UI coach John Groce called a "grimy" 81-79 victory over Auburn.
No, Illinois isn't "King of Chicago" as athletic director Mike Thomas proclaimed his long-term vision to be during his introductory press conference a little more than a year ago.
Truth be told, it never will be.
Chicago is a pro sports town. The Bears come first followed by the Cubs, Bulls, Blackhawks and White Sox. They also have the Fire of Major League Soccer, the Rush of the Arena Football League, the Wolves of the American Hockey League and the Sky of the WNBA.
For the Illini, competing for attention in Chicago is like one of the 19 Duggar children attempting to get some quality one-on-one time with their parents.
But it is possible for Illinois to become a beloved prince of Chicago. And with the Bears looking less like a Super Bowl contender and interest in the Bulls lukewarm as Derrick Rose recovers from knee surgery, the Illini may have the chance to steal some of the city's sports love right now.
The city embraces the Illini winners: the 2004-05 team, the Bill Self teams, and the 1988-89 Flyin' Illini. Having Chicago-area flavor (Nick Anderson, Kendall Gill, Marcus Liberty, Dee Brown, Luther Head, etc.) helps, but winning over all else will draw Chicago eyes.
A 13-1 Illini nonconference record appears to have done just that.
Saturday's matchup against an SEC bottom dweller drew a listed attendance of 18,136, much improved from the 12,139 against Georgia in 2008, the 13,117 against Illinois-Chicago and even the 15,144 that showed up last year when a 10-0 Illini team played UNLV.
Groce acknowledged it in his opening statement after the game.
"What an unbelievable crowd," he said. "Wow. That was phenomenal. Eighteen-thousand plus. My hat goes off to Illini nation first for coming out. I thought they got loud there a couple different times. ...They were going bonkers. It was great to have their support. They're a huge part of this one today."
While no major recruits were in attendance on Saturday because of prep tournaments, the wins have turned even more heads.
Chicago Simeon seniors Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate bought into Groce without any proof of success. Chicago Curie junior center Cliff Alexander, Rivals' No. 4 prospect, speaks positively to the media about the Illini. Top sophomore prospects Charles Matthews of St. Rita and D.J. Williams of Simeon seem to speak more highly about Groce and his staff's quick boost to the program. Even Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor, the top junior prospect in the country, maintains that the Illini still have a chance.
"If recruits come and watch these games, they see the atmosphere," said sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who had six points. "That's the one big thing. They see the atmosphere, and they're like, 'I want to be in this. I want to be the one playing in here.'"
As another result of its hot start, Illinois has gained extra inches of copy in newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. Its highlight packages appear a little earlier and a little longer on Chicago TV sportscasts. Its scores are read on radio sports updates.
It has a coach in Groce who has brought more swagger and a more exciting, up-tempo style of play. Illinois had 48 points in its loss to UNLV last year and 54 points in its loss to UIC in 2010. It had 47 points at halftime Saturday.
It has a player in Paul who, while still inconsistent with his shooting and ball-handling, has proven to be one of the stars of the Big Ten. He just so happens to be from the north Chicago suburb of Gurnee.
The star on Saturday, however, was another Chicago kid. Tracy Abrams looked like the future face of the team as he went off for a career-high 27 points, career-high 8 rebounds, 5 assists and four steals while committing just one turnover. The Mt. Carmel product will have help in future years from other Chicago guys like Egwu, Nunn, Tate and sophomore Myke Henry.
"We may not execute sometimes," Egwu said. "We make bad decisions here and there, but we play hard. We play aggressive, and I think we have that toughness about us. People like that, and they're going to watch us regardless. Sometimes we're going to have a bad game, like this game. It was kind of ugly. But we grind it out and find a way to win."
Illinois has a long way to go before it's fully adopted back into Chicago's sports kingdom. People paid attention when Brandon Paul scored 43 to lead the Illini to an upset of No. 5 Ohio State in January and a 15-3 start. They also paid attention, for negative reasons, once Bruce Weber was fired after they ended the season 17-15.
But Groce and company are hitting checkpoints along the way: a top-25 ranking, a win on the road against a top-10 team in primetime, a top-12 ranking, a win in Chicago. A competitive Big Ten slate and an NCAA Tournament berth could further establish Illinois as a more regular part of Chicago's busy sports cycle.
"We love coming up here; I love it," Groce said. "We're blessed to have (the game at the United Center). Obviously, it's a great sports city. Our alumni up here are unbelievable, as indicative of the crowd. People are excited when we come up here. It's a big area for us recruiting. It's a special place, a special city."
Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5, 95.3 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at www.espncu.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU