CHAMPAIGN — Let’s take a cue from “Hoosiers” for a second. And the iconic scene that plays out when Hickory High enters Hinkle Fieldhouse, basically in awe, ahead of the state championship game from the fictional 1986 movie geared around the mystique of Indiana high school basketball.
Measure the distance from the backboard to the free-throw line — like Danville’s own Gene Hackman did by using a tape measure — and you’ll find it’s still 15 feet. The distance from the floor to the rim — who can forget manager and postseason hero Ollie getting on the shoulders of a bigger teammate — to verify that, yes, it’s still 10 feet. The basketball piece of playing amid the COVID-19 pandemic, simplistic as it may be, remains the same.
That’s what Illinois coach Brad Underwood and his staff have tried to stress ever since the eighth-ranked Illini returned to campus this summer to begin preparations for the 2020-21 season.
“When the ball bounces, it’s all the same,” Underwood said. “The everyday practice mentality hasn’t changed. The focus is still on execution and playing hard.
“We talked about that in the summer. We’ve just kind of changed the course a little bit, but it’s always been about basketball. It’s been about getting better. It’s been about our process. That hasn’t changed.”
What has changed is the environment the Illini will see when they play against North Carolina A&T at 1 p.m. Wednesday in the season opener.
An empty arena.
Socially distanced benches. Face coverings for many who are actually allowed in the building to work the game.
It’s a far cry from the last Illini game played inside State Farm Center.
The final game of the 2019-20 season feels both like forever ago and fresh in the memory.
Time has seemingly slowed since that 78-76 victory on March 8 against Iowa. A global pandemic can make 81/2 months feel like forever.
But that game was electric. State Farm Center was packed — the fifth sellout of the season. The crowd was on fire. Illinois was playing for a top-four finish in the Big Ten and newly-minted fiercest rival Iowa was standing in the way.
How could you forget Da’Monte Williams going nose-to-nose with Connor McCaffery? Or the Orange Krush trolling Iowa coach Fran McCaffery with a vast assortment of signs and cardboard cutouts?
The next time State Farm Center will boast that kind of atmosphere is the great unknown.
Illinois players, coaches and staff are tested every day for the novel coronavirus. They work in a practice facility that’s gone into fortress mode with access restricted. Homecourt advantage is a figment of the past this season.
Nothing is the same.
Except the basketball component.
Understanding the basketball piece is the same is something Underwood said the Illini grasped this summer.
Watching the NBA playoffs happen — albeit in a bubble college basketball can’t replicate — was a sign to them their own season was at least possible. It created anticipation.
“The one thing we’ve tried to do is not overcomplicate things in a time where there’s a lot of change and just keep it really about basketball and not make a big deal about the circumstances around us changing,” Underwood said. “Not having a schedule. Not knowing who your first opponent is.”
Answers to those particular questions came in the last two weeks. The nonconference slate was released first, with Wednesday’s season opener coming against North Carolina A&T in a multi-team event. The 20-game Big Ten schedule followed five days later, with wiggle room built in with collapsible byes if games need to be rescheduled.
The final Zoom call between the 14 Big Ten coaches came the day after the conference’s schedule release. They had been meeting virtually for months, addressing issue after issue when it came to getting the 2020-21 season underway. Those are done.
“From my perspective, it’s like, ‘OK, 100 percent of the time it’s ball now,’” Underwood said. “It’s not the schedule. It’s not COVID. Not that we’re not dealing with those things — we are — but now it’s time to really get down to business and get dialed in. Maybe a couple less distractions now that it’s all done.”
“Done,” of course, is a bit subjective when it comes to a college basketball season in a pandemic. Illinois, of course, lost one of its MTE opponents a week after the nonconference schedule was released when Wright State pulled out last Friday afternoon because of COVID-19 related depth issues. The Illini were able to replace the Raiders with Chicago State less than 24 hours later.
Underwood has repeatedly said the last several months that the teams who handle the pandemic and all that it entails the best will be the most successful.
Starting at home with an MTE — something Underwood called the only decision once the originally scheduled Emerald Coast Classic in Florida fell through — is at least a bit of a head start toward success.
“Being at home, there’s no doubt you’ll feel a little more comfortable,” Underwood said. “But we’ll see what home court’s like with no fans.”