Illini walk-ons walking on air

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OMAHA — When the clock hit zeros Sunday in Minneapolis, AJ Redd sprinted off the bench and started hugging everybody he could find.

Illinois men's basketball had just won the Big Ten tournament, and Redd was on cloud nine. His family couldn't be there to watch in person, but he called them as the confetti covered him and the rest of the Target Center court.

"That was probably one of the best days of my life," Redd said. "Just an unreal feeling from the time the last buzzer went off. For the next six or seven hours, it was just crazy. To see how proud everybody was and how everyone has been working so hard toward something like that, it was pretty fun."

Celebrating along with him was Max Williams, whose excitement lasted long after the confetti had cleared. He was up until 5 in the morning just thinking about it.

"It was surreal," Williams said. "When the buzzer sounded and we ran onto the court, I've never had that feeling before in my life. I just felt so happy and excited. That was something I'll remember and cherish forever. I still can't believe it."

And all Keaton Kutcher could do was look around and take it all in.

"I'm just grateful to be here and be a part of something special," Kutcher said. "It's really cool. I'm just really happy for all my guys. Everybody in this locker room deserves it."

None of them played a single minute in the Illini's conference championship win over Wisconsin, but they treated it like they were just as big a piece in the process as tournament MVP Terrence Shannon Jr. In a way, they were.

Redd is in his second year as a walk-on for the Illini, playing a total of just 19 minutes over the last two seasons. Williams and Kutcher are taking redshirt seasons after transferring from DePaul and South Dakota, respectively, where they also had minimal playing time.

They know their role on this Illinois team, and they play it well. They're the energizers.

If you look down the Illini bench, you'll see that trio, among others, doing everything in their power to keep their teammates engaged, whatever they can do to impact the game off the court. From standing to their feet and bringing everyone else with them after a Shannon transition dunk or a Marcus Domask clutch three-pointer to hooting and hollering to get the team out of a rough stretch, that's their job on game day.

Williams said he'll get so into a game that he sometimes finds himself in a defensive stance when the Illini are on that end of the court.

"I just try to rile up the rest of the bench," Williams said. "If you're on the court and you look back at your bench and see all your guys riled up, motivating you and supporting you, it makes you feel good. Providing that energy is so important because it's contagious. That positivity spreads throughout the rest of the bench."

It's a different role for them from their high school days. Williams averaged 14 points, five rebounds and four assists per game in his final year at IMG Academy. Redd is fourth on St. Ignatius' all-time scoring list and ranks first in rebounds, assists and steals. Kutcher was a three-time All-State selection in Iowa en route to becoming Mount Vernon's all-time leading scorer.

As competitors, they all said they'd like to be contributing on the court, but they also understand the reality of their situation. Even when it gets discouraging, they know they're helping the team. Whether it's energizing the bench or giving the starters a different look during practice, they know they play a crucial role.

"It can definitely be taxing sometimes," Redd said. "You might think there are some things you can contribute to the team, but everybody has to accept their role in one way or another. ... No matter if you're a guy who's starting and playing all the minutes, the support staff, the managers or the walk-ons, they really make it feel like you have an important role in this program."

They all came to Champaign for the same reason, and that's to get where they are right now. Illinois is the No. 3 seed in the East region of the NCAA tournament and will play 14-seed Ohio Valley Conference champion Morehead State in Thursday's first-round action in Omaha, Neb.

"I feel really lucky to be able to experience this kind of stuff," Williams said. "Growing up as a kid, it's stuff I always dreamed of, to play in March Madness, prolong your season and play as long as you can. It's what you put the work in every day for, and I just feel lucky to experience it with the rest of my team."

Kutcher wanted to find a place that felt more like home, and his Illinois teammates and coaches have done that for him.

"It's been a dream come true, man," Kutcher said. "I came here because of the family atmosphere, and it's lived up to the expectations for me in every way."

Two years ago, Redd was just a kid from Chicago getting ready to head to college to study finance. He decided he wasn't done playing basketball just yet and is now on the ride of a lifetime.

"Illinois is a big-time basketball program. That's something you dream of as a kid, wanting to make it to this high of a level," Redd said. "Being able to say you're a part of something as big as what we've got going on this year ... this experience has been second to none."