CHAMPAIGN — Twenty-seven years ago, State Farm Center was called Assembly Hall. The high school boys basketball state tournament had two enrollment classes, not four.
But in all the years since 1995, the previous time the state finals were played in Champaign-Urbana, there has been at least one constant — the University of Illinois. For 77 years, its campus played host to the crown jewel of Illinois prep sports.
As the tournament returned Thursday to the home of the Fighting Illini following a quarter-century at the Peoria Civic Center, that connection might be enough.
“I just think that it’s the place,” Richard Keene said during the Class 1A semifinal between Steeleville and Yorkville Christian. “For a major-college facility, it’s one of the best in the nation. I just think it ought to be here.”
Said Jayne DeLuce: “I want to say it’s home where it belongs.”
DeLuce’s opinion might be expected. After all, she is president and CEO of Visit Champaign County, the local convention and visitors bureau.
But Keene’s thoughts might be a little more surprising. He once belonged to the Peoria-based board that helped oversee the tournament during its run at Carver Arena.
A former boys basketball coach at Astoria and South Fulton, Keene praised the Peoria community’s state-finals support. But he began watching this tournament in person 50 years ago, and he has a long memory.
Remembrances of those long-ago games at Assembly Hall, and the on-court performances many of those games spawned, outweigh whatever Peoria loyalties Keene has.
“I like this arena. I was always disappointed when they went to Peoria,” Keene said. “It’s just that I grew up as a kid watching it on TV here, coming down here. There’s so many memories for me here as a kid.”
Attendance decrease in Peoria helped lead to move
Rekindling a hallowed past and the potential of a different future helped convince the Illinois High School Association to decide two years ago to return the state finals to Champaign.
A change in format, to a one-weekend event, and an attempt to stem an attendance slide were among the reasons for the move from Peoria. But the coronavirus pandemic forced a two-year state-finals cancellation, in 2020 and 2021.
“I think the pandemic actually built up more excitement. They want to get out,” DeLuce said about fans.
Whether that translated into a bump at the gate was uncertain. Figures regarding ticket sales weren’t available Thursday, according to IHSA spokesman Matt Troha.
State Farm Center seats about 15,500 compared to 11,000 or so at Carver. During the 1A games Thursday, the arena appeared to be about one-quarter to one-third full.
Class 2A semifinals were Thursday afternoon, with third-place games Thursday night.
Peoria crowd sizes in recent years were about the same as those Thursday, but the comparison isn’t apples-to-apples.
Class 1A and 2A semifinals were played on Fridays in Peoria, when the tournament was conducted over two consecutive weekends. Now, all four title games are to be played Saturday. Class 3A and 4A semifinals and third-place games are set for Friday.
No March Madness Experience in Champaign
Other Champaign-vs.-Peoria differences were more tangible.
A two-year remodeling of the former Assembly Hall was completed about six years ago. New seating, among other things, transformed the interior of the 59-year-old stadium from battleship gray to Illini orange and blue.
Modern amenities, including miniature television sets at loge-suite seats, are prevalent.
But there is no March Madness Experience fan festival in Champaign, unlike what took place at the Civic Center exhibit halls during the tournament. That disappointed Liberty coach Greg Altmix, whose team won a 1A semifinal Thursday and finished third in 2016 in Peoria.
“That was really nice, because it gives you something to do,” Altmix said about between-games lulls.
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According to DeLuce, the omission is by design.
“One of the focuses that we really wanted to be on was to get people to be watching the game,” she said. “The IHSA was very intentional to say we want people watching the games, not just going to the Experience and not being a part of the game itself.
“It became like a hangout in Peoria, which is awesome. But we really wanted to focus on the game-day experience, too.”
'You don't get bigger in basketball than here'
That isn’t to say the sideshows are gone entirely.
Inside the arena is a kids’ zone where face painting and button making take place, among other activities. For older children, there’s a virtual-reality/esports area. A U of I admissions fair is to be held Friday.
None of that appeared to matter to Liberty fan Matt Powell, whose son Eli plays for Altmix. Powell, who visited Carver when Liberty played there in 2016 and 2005, said a more obvious and apparent factor determined his state-finals preference.
“The atmosphere here is a lot more electric. And it’s the University of Illinois,” Powell said. “You don’t get bigger in basketball than here.
"I love Peoria. Peoria did a great job. But I just don’t think you can beat the atmosphere here.”
That atmosphere will have a chance to build for two more years, the length of the Champaign contract with the IHSA. DeLuce said the city doesn't intend to lose the tournament again.
A recent conversation she had with J.D. Dalfonso, president of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, appeared to pass the torch.
“My counterpart … he was like, ‘Hey, have a great week,’” DeLuce said. “They did a wonderful job. It was just time for a change.”
This article originally appeared on Journal Star: Illinois state basketball tournament: Champaign takes over from Peoria