CHAMPAIGN — Twenty years ago the only place the University of Illinois and DePaul would have battled was in the dark alleys of Chicagoland basketball recruiting.
From a strictly basketball perspective, these schools loathed one another.
Fortunately, time moves on, coaches change, players depart and feelings are soothed. It also might be a factor that for too many years now, neither program has been a player on the national stage.
Fast forward from those bitter days and the time seems right to revisit a basketball rivalry that flourished in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s but has been silent for 60 years.
For the first time since 1957, DePaul and Illinois go at it Friday at the State Farm Center (7:30 p.m., BTN) as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games, which matches teams from the Big East and Big Ten conferences.
At the peak of the basketball bitterness between these schools Pat Kennedy was head coach at DePaul and Lon Kruger at Illinois. They were slugging it out for the elite talent in the Chicago area and each school was trying to make its mark in the NCAA Tournament.
Now, Dave Leitao is head coach at DePaul (for a second time) and Brad Underwood is in his first season at Illinois. DePaul hasn’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 2004 and Illinois hasn’t been there since 2013.
Underwood said he was surprised to learn this series had gone dormant for so long.
“This will be the first game actually played in this building,” he said Thursday, noting that other games played on the Illinois campus were played at Huff Hall.
Illinois (2-0) has a 12-6 edge in the series. Eight of the games in Chicago were at the old Chicago Stadium.
“I’m excited because it’s two programs that have a tremendous history and tradition,” Underwood said. “Dave has done a great job at DePaul and his program is very much improved.”
There is excitement around the DePaul program because the Blue Demons (1-1) just opened their new $165 million building, Wintrust Arena, near McCormick Place. DePaul christened the arena by playing Notre Dame last Friday with the Fighting Irish pulling away in the second half for a 72-58 victory. DePaul bounced back to defeat Delaware State 81-57 on Monday.
“DePaul has been exceptional in two areas,” Underwood said. “They are scary in transition. They’re a team that literally has four guys who have the capability to get a rebound and lead the break. They can drive the ball to the rim as well as they can stop and shoot from the 3-point line.
“They’re also a team that through two games has been just short of dominant on their own offensive glass. That’s something we have to shore up.”
Underwood said it’s been a solid week of practice following Illinois’ 77-74 victory Sunday over Tennessee-Martin. Illinois led by 14 points with less than four minutes to play, but made several mistakes as UT-M gave the Illini a scare.
He said he likes what he has seen from versatile freshman guard Mark Smith.
“Look at the Tennessee-Martin game,” Underwood said. “He played literally every position on the floor. He spent a lot of time at the point because Te’Jon (Lucas) was in foul trouble. We flashed him into the high post, he posted on the block and got an offensive rebound there.
“He’s a guy who is a very good 3-point shooter. He’ll jump up and make shots. He’s playing everywhere. I could not be more pleased with his progress. As I get to watch games now and see freshmen around the country, he’s right there. He’s going to make mistakes and that’s OK.
"He’s pretty bright. He learns from them and he usually doesn’t make the same mistake twice. And he’s great in tight quarters. He has a way of getting the ball on the rim.”
As for future Illinois-DePaul matchups, Underwood said, “I don’t run from anyone. They’re a quality program in our state and it’s easy for our fans to get there. Anything is possible. I respect the job Dave has done. Keep all options open. Never say never.”