Work in Sports
Illinois grows up amid high expectations
Posted: Saturday March 11, 2000 01:48 PM
By Mark Ambrogi, Special to CNNSI.com
CHICAGO -- Eleventh-seeded Illinois' near-miraculous run through the Big Ten tournament last year set some lofty expectations for this season.
Too lofty, if you ask Illini coach Lon Kruger. He felt it was too much to ask of his young charges that were added three big-time newcomers -- redshirt freshman point guard Frank Williams, freshman forward Brian Cook and junior forward Marcus Griffin. All three were McDonald's All-Americans. Griffin was National Division II Junior College Player of the Year.
"The expectations early we weren't ready to handle that," Kruger said. "We had a point guard [Frank Williams] that had never played a minute of college basketball. We had a postman [Brian Cook] who never played a minute of college basketball. They're reading where they're supposed to be great. People expected that to happen, which was unrealistic."
But Williams and Cook have grown since that season began, Kruger said.
Williams is averaging 11.1 points, second on the team to sophomore guard Cory Bradford's 15.6 norm. Williams has 119 assists compared to 78 turnovers.
Cook averaged 10.2 points in the Big Ten action. He took over as starter when Griffin hurt his knee and has been averaging better than 13 points in those 13 games. Cook is averaging 9.3 points overall.
"Across the board, you can say they've grown," Kruger said. "They hung in there and they weren't distracted by a tough week in January. They've played their best basketball in a month."
The No. 25 Illini (20-8, 11-5 Big Ten) had won nine of their last 10 games before Friday's pulsating 72-69 victory over Indiana in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals. Bradford hit the game-winning 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left. The Illini will play ninth-seeded Penn State on Saturday.
Some of the seeds were planted for this season from last season's tournament run. The Illini, who finished last in the Big Ten, upset nationally ranked teams Minnesota, Indiana Ohio State before losing in the final to Michigan State
"Anytime you go 3-13 and beat three nationally ranked opponents in three days, it gets your confidence going," sophomore forward Damir Krupalija said. "Let's face it, guys didn't feel too good about themselves after the regular season. We looked at the tournament as another opportunity we could have won in the regular season and didn't. In the tournament we came together and pulled those close games out. We felt pretty good, then went to Australia and won seven games there."
The Illini were ranked in the first 10 polls of the season but fell out after a 1-3 start in the Big Ten. They finally reappeared in the rankings the week of Feb. 28 after a six-week absence.
One factor is the Illini have been plagued by injuries all season. Griffin tore a cartilage in his left knee during practice. He missed five games before returning. Krupalija missed several games with a sprained big toe. Senior reserve forward Victor Chukwudebe has missed several games with ankle and finger injuries.
Illinois has only played five Big Ten games all season in which the entire roster has been healthy. Of the regulars, only Chukwudebe didn't play Friday. Forward Sergio McClain was still bothered by a sore knee Friday, but played 23 minutes.
The injuries kept the Illini from jelling quickly.
"We had some guys coming back, but for the most part this is a young group," McClain said. "We're starting two freshmen, two sophomores and a junior. But we've found what it takes to win, intensity and good defense. Once we got that going, the offense is going to come.
"Everybody knows their role and everybody what they have to do night in and night out to get the job done. We have a great cohesiveness and we got a lot of depth on the bench. We've been able to click the last few games."
Kruger said the victory over Indiana likely helps the Illini's seeding in the NCAA tournament.
"Our strength of schedule is great, our league has been great and our last 10 has been great," he said. "All that bodes well for us but all that makes us a six, five or four. I think at least a six seed."
Kruger won't make any guesses on how his team will do in the tournament.
"There are hopefully six teams in the conference that can do well," he said. "I think the Big Ten is the premier conference. The competition every night prepares us well."Mark Ambrogi covers the Big Ten for The Indianapolis Star