Illini alumni show how it should be done

CHAMPAIGN — In an official sense, the Fighting Illini Alumni Game on Saturday night was all about honoring the greats who wore orange and blue.

When you can trot out Deron Williams, Dee Brown, Kendall Gill, Stephen Bardo and Brian Cook as one of the starting fives, then you’ve done something over the years.

But inside muggy Assembly Hall, there was a subtext to the night as thick as the air:

What about the recent Illini teams that haven’t lived up to the tradition?

Bruce Weber put words to the mood when he took the microphone and addressed the crowd prior to the fourth quarter of the alumni game.

He thanked Lon Kruger and Bill Self — both of whom returned this weekend for the official reunion of the 2000-01 and 2001-02 Big Ten champs — and told the fans to admire the five title banners from 1998 to 2005.

“We haven’t had any since,” Weber said. “We’ve got to get this thing going. We’ve got to get some more banners up there because that’s what it’s all about.”

Weber’s ninth Illinois team, which heads to Italy on Wednesday for a 10-day exhibition tour, played a 20-minute scrimmage prior to the alumni affair.

For almost everyone in the Hall, it was the first chance to see five freshmen and senior transfer Sam Maniscalco play.

The verdict, alas, was mixed. Freshman center Nnanna Egwu continued to suggest he’ll matter immediately.

The 6-foot-10 Egwu piled up a game-high 16 points to go with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks.

Freshman center Ibby Djimde, considered a midmajor recruit when he signed in April, added 6 points, 5 rebounds and 2 blocks while playing as physically as any Illini since Robert Archibald.

Then there was the flip side, as Self used to say. The Illini shot 3 of 24 on 3-pointers. At least 7 tries missed the rim entirely.

The current Illini stuck around for the alumni show and learned a thing or three.

Though most of the ex-Illini aren’t as spry as they used to be, guys like Gill and Williams and Brown offered flashbacks that rewound the calendar to their glory days.

They switched up the squads long enough for Williams, Brown, James Augustine, Roger Powell, Jr., and Jack Ingram to play together for the first time since the 2005 national championship game.

Of course they offered a magical stretch where Brown, brandishing his trademark orange mouthguard, buried a 3-pointer.

Then Williams earned a steal. Brown sprinted behind him, called for the ball and drilled another 3-pointer. Good stuff.

But how does that help the next group of Illini live up to the tradition?

Let’s see: Surely it was a coincidence that assistant coach Jerrance Howard, who scored one basket Saturday, brought Class of 2014 hotshots like Jahlil Okafor, Paul White and Larry Austin Jr. into the Illini locker room just as Williams met with 20 media.

Then came the moment in the Hall tunnel when a Class of 2015 guard offered a huge smile as Brown gave him a handshake and a playful body check.

But just as the recruit’s beaming mom prepared to take a picture of her son with Brown, it had to be nixed. Didn’t want any NCAA repercussions.