Chicago is important to the Illinois basketball program.
For one, the city and its surrounding areas are full of basketball talent. A bulk of the state's top players and even some of the nation's elite ones come from Chicago. Recruiting there is vital to the program's health. Seven players on the current roster are from the Chicagoland area.
Secondly, Chicago is home to thousands of Illini alumni. As much as Northwestern wants to call itself Chicago's Big Ten team, Illinois' alumni trump the Wildcats and all of the other Big Ten schools in the area.
Those two reasons have brought the Illini to Chicago to host an annual game dating back to 1994. It's a way of attracting recruits and thanking their fans. And with 32 wins in 43 appearances when visiting Chicago, the Illini have often been successful in their mission.
Lately, though, the game hasn't exactly worked out that way. The Illini have been beaten in their three last trips to Chicago, and two of those defeats -- an upset by UIC and a 16-points loss to UNLV -- had recruits and fans leaving unimpressed.
For Illinois' seniors, Saturday's game against Auburn is their last chance to win at the United Center and turn the annual Chicago game back in the program's favor.
"I have no clue (why we've struggled in Chicago,)" Illinois senior guard D.J. Richardson said on Thursday. "It's a new year."
Richardson has been on the court for every one of the Illini's last three losses in Chicago.
Against Gonzaga on Jan. 2, 2010, Richardson witnessed Illinois rally from a 21-point first-half deficit to take an eight-point lead in the second half and finally fall 85-83 in overtime. He had six points in 15 minutes as a freshman.
Against UIC on Dec. 18, 2010, the Illini were riding a seven-game winning streak and came in ranked No. 14. On the other hand, the Flames had a first-year coach in Howard Moore and were under .500. None of that mattered as the Illini surrendered an eight-point second-half lead and lost 57-54.
"That was bad," said Richardson, who had 13 points in the loss. "That was terrible. That's all I can say."
Against UNLV on Dec. 17, 2011, the Illini, who were ranked No. 19, suffered another tough loss. The Rebels pulled away from Illinois late in the first half and kept it that way in the second half to close out with a 64-48 win.
"It was tough," said Richardson, who with a game-high 19 points was only the Illini player in double figures. "I don't want to count myself out of last year's game. As a team, we didn't play great. We didn't play good enough for us to win."
Not only have the Chicago losses been difficult to swallow for Illinois, they've also led to disappointing second-half finishes. After the Gonzaga loss, Illinois went 12-11 the rest of the year. After UIC, it went 10-13. After UNLV, it went 7-15. The Illini have been to the NCAA tournament once in the last three seasons.
With Illinois off to a 12-1 start this season, the Illini are optimistic that trend will change. A win over Auburn in Chicago could just springboard the Illini into the Big Ten season and set up another NCAA bid.
"That's what we're looking for," Richardson said. "Looking to go into this game, just having a refreshed start. It's going to be the second semester for school, second part of the season, just end the non-conference part on a good note. Try to go 13-1 in non-conference, go into the Big Ten, that's a whole season and get focused for that."
Illinois first-year coach John Groce understands what Chicago means to the program and said this week he planned to continue the tradition of the Chicago game.
"We're excited to go to Chicago," Groce said. "It's a huge area for us not only for alumni, but for a recruiting standpoint. We're really excited to have an opportunity to play up there. I know our guys are looking forward to it."