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2 Illinois
Seth Davis
November 19, 2001
The return to form of a forgotten star could make for an award-winning season
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November 19, 2001

2 Illinois

The return to form of a forgotten star could make for an award-winning season

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STARTING LINEUP

POS.

PLAYER

HT.

CL.

KEY STAT

SF

Blandon Ferguson

6'3"

Jr.

14.4 ppg*

PF

Brian Cook#

6'10"

Jr.

6.1 rpg

C

Robert Archibald

6'11"

Sr.

58.8 FG%

SG

Cory Bradford#

6'3"

Sr.

9.9 ppg

PG

Frank Williams#

6'3"

Jr.

14.9 ppg

2000-01 record: 27-8
Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 6
#Returning starter
*As junior college sophomore

For Illini senior guard Cory Bradford, last season was one huge disappointment. It started off well enough when he was voted the preseason player of the year in the Big Ten, but over the summer he had suffered a deep bone bruise in his left knee while playing for the USA Select Team that trained against the Olympic team, and he was never the same player after mat. With his explosiveness gone, he became little more than a stand-still shooter. "There were times when I couldn't jump over a piece of paper," says Bradford. "Teams would take away my three-point shot and figure, What else does he have?"

He was able to extend his streak of consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer to an NCAA-record 88 (the string ended on Feb. 13), but his scoring average dropped from 15.3 in his sophomore season to 9.9. Now, however, after swearing off basketball for more than two months to allow his knee to heal, Bradford says he feels "like a newborn kid again." That sense of optimism is surging at Illinois, which has three starters returning from last season's Elite Eight team, including 6'3" junior point guard Frank Williams, who ended up winning the Big Ten player of the year award that was predicted for Bradford.

Two years ago Williams was a talented but inconsistent freshman with a reputation for being moody, but he has blossomed as a player and as a person. He led the Mini in scoring (14.9 points a game), assists (4.4) and steals (2.0) last season, and beyond that, says Illini coach Bill Self, "I think he really enjoys being a college student." After Illinois lost to Arizona in the Midwest Regional final last March, Self canvassed NBA scouts and general managers and told Williams that he would be, at worst, a late first-round pick in the draft, but Williams never wavered in his decision to stay in school. "It wasn't the coach talking him into staying, I promise you that," Self says. "Of course, the coach wasn't talking him into leaving, either."

The Illini's ability to improve upon that Elite Eight finish this year will hinge in large part on whether they can again play with the defensive toughness that was their trademark last season. That would have been hard enough without Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain, last year's senior leaders, but it will become even more difficult without 6'8" senior forward Lucas Johnson—he of the shiny pate and sharp elbows—who suffered a torn ACL in his right knee last month and is out until at least February. There's still a lot of experience on hand, however, with 6'11" senior center Robert Archibald and 6'9" senior forward Damir Krupalija, and the addition of 6'3" small forward Blandon Ferguson, a junior college transfer. What Illinois needs most, however, is more production from 6'10" junior power forward Brian Cook, who last season blended stunning performances (23 and 22 first-half points against Missouri and Penn State, respectively) with maddening inconsistency (two points in the second half against Missouri and zero against Penn State). Self especially hopes Cook will mix it up more inside: He shot just 37 free throws in 16 Big Ten games.

"We were really pleased with what we did last year," Bradford says, "but we definitely feel we can do better."

[This article contains a table. Please see hardcopy of magazine or PDF.]

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