CHAMPAIGN — Ryan Schmidt was a three-year varsity letterman at Central Catholic High School, but until the last few days the University of Illinois senior assumed his basketball playing days were behind him.
As a fourth-year student manager for the Illini basketball team, it was Schmidt who was handing out towels behind the team bench during Wednesday night’s victory over Purdue.
That’s one of his two jobs: Accounting major and student manager.
But all that changes Saturday when Schmidt suits up as a member of the Illini team. He becomes an emergency reinforcement, a 6-foot guard who will wear uniform No. 14 when the Illini invade the old barn they call Williams Arena on the University of Minnesota campus.
"I never really expected to suit up for the orange and blue," said Schmidt, who considers himself a lifelong fan. "My room's decked out in Illini gear."
The truth is, there are only two circumstances in which Schmidt gets into the 1:15 p.m. game. One is if Illinois is cruising along with a 20-point lead and two minutes to go. The other is if fouls or more injuries put the Illini in an unforeseen roster bind.
Illinois will once again be without injured guards Tracy Abrams, Rayvonte Rice and Aaron Cosby.
Coach John Groce said he didn’t want to get caught short-handed.
“We’re just not very deep right now,” Groce said Friday before boarding a flight to Minnesota. “I just thought it was wise moving forward that we have enough bodies for practice and that’s what went into it.”
Groce would have had Schmidt in uniform against Purdue. But he first needed approval from the NCAA Clearinghouse and that didn’t arrive until Thursday.
“Ryan is a great kid. He’s been with us the entire time I’ve been here,” Groce said. “He understands what we’re about and he was a really good high school player. It’s more depth for practice and depth on our bench for games.”
The hope is that Schmidt is merely an extra cheerleader rooting on an Illini team tasked with beating a Minnesota squad that is frustrated by a series of close conference losses.
The Gophers (12-8 overall) are 1-6 in Big Ten play. But the losses include a three-point decision at Nebraska, a two-point loss to Iowa, another two-pointer in overtime against Ohio State, a four-point loss to Purdue and a five-point loss to Michigan.
“They’ve been up by double figures a couple of times and maybe couldn’t finish like they would have liked to,” Groce said. “And they’ve been down by double figures against Ohio State and Iowa and come back to take the lead.
“It’s a league with a lot of parity and often times it’s a shot or two, a play or two, a turnover that makes the difference. The margin for error is extremely small in our league.”
For the second straight game Illinois (13-7, 3-4) will start freshman Leron Black at forward. He’s coming off a 15-point, 13-rebound performance against Purdue. Like Purdue, Minnesota is a team with plenty of size.
“I like to go against players who are bigger than me,” Black said. “It’s a challenge and I like challenges.”
In addition to having size inside with 6-10 Maurice Walker and 6-11 Elliott Eliason, Minnesota ranks No. 2 in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting.
Three players are hitting at better than 40 percent. They are Nate Mason (.446), DeAndre Mathieu (.435) and leading scorer Andre Hollins (.418).