CHAMPAIGN — The Illinois men’s basketball team flew out to New Jersey on Friday after one final practice.
It was the start of a better part of a week on the East Coast with games at Rutgers and against Florida Atlantic in New York City.
It’s a business trip, not a vacation, for the Illini.
“I’m not going to New York and New Jersey to have fun,” Illinois senior guard Terrence Shannon Jr. said. “I’m there to win. We might have dinner plans, but other than that I’m just there to win.”
So a trip to the top of the Empire State Building isn’t in Illinois’ plans. Ditto for double-decker bus tours of Manhattan or a boat to Liberty Island.
The itinerary is full without them.
The Illini will bus from Piscataway, N.J., to New York City today after playing Rutgers in both teams’ Big Ten opener. Sunday and Monday will be full with practice and mandatory study hall given the team will return to Champaign on Wednesday, jump into reading day on Thursday and take their finals Friday morning before another flight to Knoxville, Tenn., and a Dec. 9 game at Tennessee.
It’s a lot of travel considering the trip to the East Coast is also the team’s first this season.
“We didn’t leave Champaign the whole month of November,” said Joey Biggs, Illinois assistant athletic director for basketball. “First game, first trip, whatever, there’s always some kinks to work out. It’s a long trip, and it’s two games, and, not that they’re not all important, but this is a pretty critical next seven-eight days for us to figure out where we are.”
While this might be Illinois’ first road trip of the season, it’s not the program’s first on the East Coast. The Illini have even done a back-to-back at Rutgers and in New York City before, playing the Scarlet Knights in the 2017-18 regular season finale and then Iowa three days later in the Big Ten tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Biggs, who is Illinois’ director of operations, knows what to expect from a logistics standpoint.
The Illini are staying at the same hotel they’ve used for every trip to New York City since being randomly assigned it during the 2018 Big Ten tournament. Practice gyms have already been secured for Monday and Tuesday. And the vagaries of New York City traffic are also accounted for in the week’s itinerary.
Biggs thought he’d allotted more than enough time for the Illinois bus to make the not quite 20-block trip from the team hotel to shootaround at Madison Square Garden ahead of last year’s Jimmy V Classic. It took more than an hour.
“Last year we were scrambling to sprint in and get our shoes on and get on the floor,” Biggs said. “We left shootaround and it took 20-25 minutes to get back to the hotel. You just never know.”
Illinois will practice Sunday and Monday at the same location. Gyms are in abundance in New York City. Finding one that’s close to the team hotel and can accommodate the team is the challenge. One that’s mitigated by the fact several athletic clubs in the city regularly work with NBA and college teams playing at Madison Square Garden.
Biggs was able to find a location where Illinois could get in its 12:30 p.m. practices both days. Tuesday’s shootaround ahead of the Jimmy V Classic is also scheduled for noon.
“You can’t ever get in the Garden except the day of, and sometimes with the NBA teams you don’t get in there the day of depending on what happened the night before,” Biggs said. “(The athletic clubs) make it a point to cater to it. They don’t charge you, which is nice, and their members kind of like it. They understand the privacy of getting in and out because they work with a lot of the NBA teams and college teams.”
The only non-basketball related item on the itinerary is the one Shannon alluded to. The entire travel party of approximately 70 people will go to dinner Sunday at a steakhouse in New York City.
“New York’s expensive, but we try to take them to a really nice dinner,” Biggs said. “The whole party goes. It gives everybody an opportunity to catch their breath for a few hours and enjoy a nice dinner. … A lot of people are like, ‘Oh, it’s great. You’re in New York!’ Then you start looking at the itinerary and there’s not much time.”