The United Center Dilemma

Jonathan Daniel

The Illini return to the United Center in Chicago on Saturday, and it's a trip that John Groce would like to continue making in the future. But how do the Illini balance that with Groce's desire for more home games?

John Groce has made no secret of the fact that he'd like the Illini to play more non-conference games at home in the future -- for comparison's sake, the Illini have played 7 of 13 games at Assembly Hall this season while Indiana has played 9 of 12 games at Lesser Assembly Hall, with those other 3 games being "neutral site" games -- but how exactly the Illini will be able to do that isn't clear right now.

Particularly when you think about the team's annual trip to Chicago to play in the United Center, which is a tradition that will continue on Saturday against Auburn. It's also a tradition that Groce would like to see continue on in the future.

"I like it. I love going up there," Groce told Jeremy Werner. "Obviously, it's our largest alumni base. We're excited to go to Chicago. It's a huge area, not only for alumni but from a recruiting standpoint. We're excited for the opportunity to play up there. Our guys are looking forward to it.

"We want to keep doing it for sure, a lot like the Missouri game. I think they're two games that really make a lot of sense for us."

Groce is right. Both those games make a lot of sense. Missouri for a rivalry game that has become one of the premier college basketball rivalries amongst non-conference opponents, and the United Center game for Chicago. A city that Mike Thomas and the school have made clear is a focal point.

The problem is fitting all this in the schedule while finding ways to fit more home games on the docket.

I remember when the United Center games first started in the 90s. The first three opponents the Illini faced in those games were Duke, Cal and UCLA. Teams like Arizona, Kansas and a second Duke appearance would follow. These were big games. Appointment television.

Lately, however, the opponents haven't been headliners. This year's game is against an Auburn squad that is not good at all, and recent games have been against UIC and Georgia. The Gonzaga game was nice, but that game came with a price.

The reason the Illini haven't had a lot of high-level opponents in Chicago lately is because those schools all want return trips. Trips that saw Illinois playing in Spokane earlier this season and will see the Illini travelling to face UNLV and Auburn next season.

Combine all these road games with the ACC/Big Ten Challenge -- which can be home or away -- the Missouri game, the United Center game and an expanding Big Ten schedule and, well, home games become hard to find.

John Groce also told Werner that, obviously, it would be nice to find an opponent without having to return the game.

"You'd say, 'Wow, coach, you're being selfish,' but I'd like to not have to return it," Groce said. "That gives us more leeway and options here in Champaign. But the reality of that is it has not been overly realistic to get that done. We'll continue to work to get that done. That would be the perfect world, but I don't know if that's going to happen."

One possible opponent that might be willing to make the trip to Chicago without the return date was brought up by both Werner and CBSChicago's Dave Wischnowsky.

Kentucky.

Kentucky is looking for a game to replace Indiana on its schedule, and the appeal of playing in Chicago -- a lot of top recruits in Chicago and John Calipari is a fan of recruiting the best players in the country -- in front of those recruits may be enough for Calipari and the Wildcats. Obviously, Kentucky would be a dream scenario in that it's definitely a marquee opponent, but a drawback would be that we have to play Kentucky.

Though, really, the Illini would have nothing to lose in such a situation. They'd either lose to Kentucky as everyone expected or they'd pull off an upset.

Other opponents like Notre Dame have already balked at the idea, but it's also possible a school like Marquette could be persuaded. Milwaukee is only 92 miles from Chicago while Champaign is 138 miles away. Which means it's about as neutral a site as you can get between the schools, so returning a home game to Milwaukee shouldn't be necessary.

Of course, Marquette doesn't bring the same value as Kentucky, but the series could prove to be another nice "border" rivalry to have.

Whatever Illinois does, I'm just happy I'm the one that doesn't have to make the decisions -- though I did offer an idea! -- as I don't think there is a way everybody can be happy. The game in Chicago is something that has to continue if Illinois is serious about being "King of Chicago" but it's likely going to come at the expense of home games in Champaign.

But nothing worth having comes without a price.

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