BY JIM COTTER
The stars were out in Champaign on Saturday night, as the University of Illinois welcomed back many of its former basketball stars for an Alumni Game at the Assembly Hall.
Among the players that returned were four of the five starters from the Final Four season of 2005, Dee Brown, Deron Williams, James Augustine and Roger Powell. In total, about 40 players got onto the court, and since many former Illini players are currently playing overseas or in the NBA, the caliber of play was very entertaining to watch.
The teams split up into two somewhat evenly matched teams, keeping key components together, like Dee and Deron.
Williams, who was the headline returnee with his charitable foundation, Point Of Hope, hosted a reception at the Activities and Recreation Center following the game. Williams, who may play in Turkey this season because of the current NBA lockout, talked to reporters briefly after the game before heading over to the event that he was hosting.
“It’s great to come back to Champaign, and I have a lot of fond memories of my time here,’’ he said.
Brown, who was undoubtedly the face of the program during his time in Champaign, always enjoys coming back to campus.
“I love Illinois, and I will do anything I can for this program,’’ he said. “They gave me the opportunity to play for four years in front of some of the greatest fans in the entire country.’’
Former Illinois coach and current Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger, returned as an honorary coach of one of the teams.
“It’s good to be back”, Kruger said, “and it is good to see all the former players from my time here as well.’’
At halftime of the alumni game, the 2001 and 2002 teams were recognized for their back-to-back Big Ten Championships.
Those teams featured such stars as Cory Bradford, Lucas Johnson, Robert Archibald, and Sergio McClain. They were coached by current Kansas coach Bill Self.
Bradford was asked to say a few words to the estimated 6,000 fans in attendance, and was emotional with his words to the Illini faithful.
At the start of the third quarter, the starting lineup of the 2005 Final Four team (minus Luther Head) took the floor as a unit. Jack Ingram, who was the sixth man on that team, stepped into the lineup for Head.
They were opposed by former standouts such as Bradford, Archibald, Kiwane Garris, Mike Davis and Demetri McCamey.
As expected, that group put on a show, and Brown even gave the crowd some good flashback memories by draining consecutive 3-pointers.
Augustine, who will be playing overseas in a few weeks, had not been back to the Assembly Hall in a few years.
“It was great to be back playing in front of the Illini fans, and it brought back memories of the Final Four year,’’ he said.
Powell, who gave up playing professionally to become an assistant coach at Valparaiso University, enjoyed playing with his former teammates, but he is looking forward to his new career path.
“I’ve been blessed to play basketball, but being an assistant coach is something that I am looking forward to pursuing,’’ Powell said.
Before the alumni game began, the 2011-12 edition of the Fighting Illini took the floor for a short scrimmage.
The current squad is preparing for an overseas venture to Italy next week, and this was the final practice in preparation for that trip.
With seven new players on this squad, Illinois will definitely look different when the season begins in October than the team that was eliminated in the third round of the NCAA Tournament this past March.