Support for Illini hoops ‘really is bigger, bolder’ | Sports

PITTSBURGH – Jana Mitchell estimates she’s attended at least 50 NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in her life.

Not all of them involving Illinois, her alma mater as a 1985 graduate.

“I’m a huge basketball fan. Even in the dry years, when Illinois wasn’t there, I would go, ”said Evansville, Ind., A resident. “If there were first or second rounds in Louisville or Indy, I would just go to watch some good basketball.”

Getting to view the Illini up close and personal, however, adds a different dimension to the NCAA experience.

Mitchell was among a group of close to 200 Illinois fans who decided to expand that experience even further.

A large throng of folks, all wearing orange and blue, gathered in the lobby of Illini’s hotel Friday afternoon in Pittsburgh, determined to let coach Brad Underwood’s players know the fans had their backs before Illinois did battle with Chattanooga in a first-round tournament game.

“It’s huge. These guys, they haven’t seen it. You think about Da’Monte (Williams) and Trent (Frazier), they’ve been here five years and they haven’t seen this, ”Mitchell said. “COVID put a damper on it for everyone, but it’s been a long time since the entire fan base was this energized. I think that energy is contagious. ”

The meet-up was organized by the University of Illinois Alumni Organization. Those in attendance were greeted by a large block I projected onto a hotel wall. Among the features:

  • A massive glass ceiling dome lit up in an orange-and-blue pattern.
  • Small orange towels bearing the phrase “OKSEE WOW TOWEL.”
  • And a huge tournament bracket with almost every team’s name written in black marker – save for Illinois, which was scrawled in orange.

Cheerleaders and a portion of the Marching Illini performed to hype up the crowd before team members began their march down a lengthy staircase into the lobby and toward their bus just outside the hotel’s main entrance.

Underwood was at the forefront, clapping and grinning as fans roared in approval and the band’s instruments blared. The athletes followed close behind, carrying focused expressions on their faces as they wove through the appreciative rooters.

“It’s been a long, long time (since something like this happened). I would say probably 2005, maybe, ”Mitchell said. “And I don’t think it was this public at that point. But this is great. It really is bigger, bolder. ”

Beth and Todd Bittle could’ve attended the rally even if Beth wasn’t a 1992 Illinois alumna. That’s because their oldest son, Patrick, is the Illini’s video coordinator. Another of the Bittles’ sons is a freshman and team manager. All three of their kids have graduated from or are currently studying in Illinois.

“We wouldn’t miss it,” Beth said. “We went walking across the bridges by the river and stuff. We were walking, a car drives by, rolls down the window (and someone yells), ‘ILL.’ ”

The Bittles made a roughly eight-hour trip from Harrisburg to take in Friday’s contest and the pregame festivities. It’s the first time Beth has attended an Illini NCAA tournament tilt in person.

“First time for both the boys, too. Our daughter is flying in (Saturday), assuming (Friday) goes OK, ”Beth said. “I was there in ’89 when it was very very exciting, so it’s kind of like reliving it again. But my kids are getting to experience it. ”

Jeff Neuharth, a 1998 Illinois graduate, also spent Friday soaking up the Illinois-themed atmosphere with his children, including at the hotel rally.

Sons Peter and Frederick are 8 and 6 years old, respectively. Each said he was most looking forward to seeing star big man Kofi Cockburn in the flesh.

“Because then we can see how much bigger he is compared to Frederick,” Peter said.

“This is my first NCAA tournament, believe it or not. It’s great, ”Jeff added. “It’s wonderful that so many people are here.”

The Bittles tried to stay measured with their predictions for Illini’s tournament involvement, perhaps still stung by last season’s second-round exit.

“Hard to go with your head or your heart,” said Todd, an Eastern Illinois alumnus. “Sometimes you put too much on them, run the jinx.”

“In my heart, we’re going to New Orleans (for the Final Four),” Beth added.

Mitchell wore a freshly signed orange Cockburn jersey to the hotel gathering. She got it inked during last week’s Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis, noting “time was running out” with Cockburn projected to soon turn professional. Mitchell’s cellphone lock screen contains a photo of Frazier as well.

Cockburn produced a 13-point, 13-rebound double-double during Illinois’ December loss to Arizona, a no. 1 seed in the NCAA field. Frazier bucketed 27 points with five steals in that game.

Mitchell wants to see if those two and their teammates could fare even better versus the Wildcats in a postseason rematch.

“I would like this team to have another shot at them,” Mitchell said.

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