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Curry Kirkpatrick
January 23, 1989
A swarm of quicksilver, 6'6" look-alikes powered unbeaten—and bewildering—Illinois past Big Ten rival Michigan 96-84
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January 23, 1989

Illini On The Rise

A swarm of quicksilver, 6'6" look-alikes powered unbeaten—and bewildering—Illinois past Big Ten rival Michigan 96-84

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Illinois basketball is confusing enough to start with. The campus spills across two towns, Champaign and Urbana. Coach Lou Henson's hair, the bizarre "Lou-'do," seems to change from black to brown, yellow to grey and white to orange with the passing of the seasons. An Indian named Chief Illiniwek is the symbol of the team, which Native Americans have yet to threaten with a boycott or a lawsuit.

Then there are the Fighting Illini themselves, whom nobody can tell apart even with a program. Is that 6'6" forward Kenny Battle or 6'6" forward Nick Anderson rising above the crowd? Is that slender, mustachioed Kendall Gill or slender, mustachioed Marcus Liberty switching on defense and scampering away on the fast break? Is that Steve Bardo. also 6'6" (what else?), playing point guard at one end of the floor the same Steve Bardo who's playing defensive center at the other? As LSU coach Dale Brown wailed to his bench during Illinois's frantic 127-100 pasting of his team in Baton Rouge last month, "Now which damn one was that dunking on us?"

Introducing the Big Ten's newest rock 'n' pick 'n' roll group: the Positionless Clones, Illinois's homegrown gang of proud, splendid athletes who not only look alike and work hard alike but who also run and jump and shoot and pass and defend with such equal versatility that opponents' bewilderment has become significant to the PCs' game plan. Why, just last Thursday night in Champaign (or it might have been Urbana), a Wisconsin defender rushed down the floor screaming "I got Gill." The trouble was he was rushing toward Liberty. Illinois won 103-80.

Then on Saturday afternoon, while Michigan was busy being terrified of how high the spectacular forwards, Battle and Anderson, might levitate for their inside slams—or indeed which forward was which—Bardo scissored the Wolverine defense with 11 assists as Gill struck from afar for 26 points. Illinois won that one 96-84.

"The best team I've seen in this league since [undefeated national champion] Indiana in 1976," gushed Michigan coach Bill Frieder afterward about the hosts. And he didn't seem confused in the slightest. Upon the Wolverines' late arrival the night before at their hotel in Urbana—not Champaign—on a Friday the 13th filled with tardy planes and buses and an impending ice storm, Frieder was willing to bet anybody $500 on the game. He would take Illinois. During his nine years as Michigan coach. Frieder has never won at Assembly Hall, and this season Illinois has not lost anywhere.

What's more, Henson is starting to become familiar with his PCs. "Coach doesn't say "Kendall, go in for Gill' anymore," says the glib Gill, a junior from downstate Matteson. "I think he knows me now."

Before this season, Gill had a career scoring average of 7.2 points per game and was a 47% shooter. The 6'4" guard-forward has bulked up nearly 20 pounds, to 196, since last season and is averaging more than 15 points on .589 shooting, including 25 of 44 from three-point land. On Saturday he outplayed the more publicized Rumeal Robinson, Michigan's indispensable guard, pressuring Robinson the length and breadth of the floor and limiting him to six baskets.

"Kendall's long arms finally got to Rumeal," said Bardo, who did his best to contain Michigan's marvelous 6'8" fallaway jump shooter, Glen Rice (30 points, 9 rebounds).

In the Big Ten it is obviously the year of deception. Dr. Tom Davis of Iowa's Let's Snooker the Refs with the Wrong Foul Shooter play paid off in a doctored victory at North Carolina. Ohio State's pint-sized Jay Burson has transformed himself from a bag of bones into a Player of the Year candidate. Indiana coach Bob Knight has acted almost like a human being. Michigan is thriving without a true backcourt. And Illinois has gone further than anyone, without even the semblance of a center.

When the Illini's 7-footer, Jens Kujawa, took his degree and went home to West Germany last summer, Henson began singing the blues about his team's lack of size. As the showdown between 14-0 Illinois and 14-1 Michigan approached, Henson was still caterwauling about Michigan's height advantage. "We look like a junior high team next to them," he cried. But his counterpart, Frieder, wasn't buying. "That team doesn't need the big guy." he said before the game. "If Kujawa could start for Illinois, I'd kiss your butt at halftime."

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