It would be difficult to find a team that has been more inconsistent than Illinois over the past three seasons, since Coach Lon Kruger arrived from Florida and instantly turned a good program into a national contender.
After winning 22 and 23 games, respectively, in Kruger's first two seasons--the most wins in one season for the Fighting Illini since they went 31-5 in 1988-89--Illinois was faced with a major rebuilding job last season. With four senior starters gone from the 1997-98 Big Ten Conference championship team that lost to Maryland in the second round of the NCAA tournament and star recruit Frank Williams ineligible because he failed to meet the NCAA's minimum academic standards to receive a scholarship, Illinois finished last in the Big Ten during the regular season. The Illini were 14-18 overall, 3-13 in conference play.
But as quickly as Illinois fell to the bottom, it almost rose to the top, winning three games in the Big Ten tournament before losing in the final to Michigan State. And this season, Illinois is expected to continue its run back toward the top of the Big Ten. The Illini (2-1) are ranked 16th in the nation entering Saturday's game against No. 24 Maryland in the first round of the BB&T Classic at MCI Center.
"I think the team is aware of those expectations," Kruger said this week. ". . . But we have a long way to go. We're going to be inconsistent here early on."
Part of the inconsistency is the result of blending Williams, junior college transfer Marcus Griffin and freshman forward Brian Cook into the playing rotation. Also, sophomore Cory Bradford, the team's leading scorer last season and this season, has moved from point guard to his natural position of shooting guard.
Bradford is averaging 16.3 points this season, but is shooting just 33.3 percent. Williams is shooting 32.4 percent. The two have combined for 19 turnovers and just six assists. There is still some adjusting to be done.
"Obviously we won a championship a couple years ago with an outstanding group of players, all of which were seniors," Kruger said. "In terms of a nucleus, last year we had to go back to a very new group and start over. Now, hopefully we're settling in to a group that is still fairly young but gained from the experience of last year. And hopefully we will have a better base to be more consistent in the future."
The Illini have plenty of depth in the front court, led by forward Victor Chukwudebe, the only player on the roster who was recruited by former coach Lou Henson. Forward Cleotis Brown, a former junior college transfer, is the only other senior on the team.
In Tuesday's 72-69 loss to No. 17 Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, Illinois led by five points at halftime before falling. Bradford made just 5 of 19 shots and Williams 4 of 17. Junior forward Sergio McClain was ineffective and played just 10 minutes and had two points. The Illini's most productive player was Cook, as the 6-foot-10 freshman scored nine points on 4-of-5 shooting in nine minutes.
"I think we realize we have a lot of work to do in a lot of areas," Kruger said. ". . . We need a lot of reps and we need game experience. We just need to keep focusing on improvement in all areas. There's no better way to work on those things than to line up against people like Duke."
Said Chukwudebe: "Right now, we're just trying to find the key components to maintain a high level of competition."
Perhaps the biggest key for Illinois will be Williams's adjustment to playing the point. The one-time McDonald's high school all-American from Peoria, Ill., has had difficulty running the offense and getting all of his teammates involved.
"Being a point guard is different from a lot of things he has had to do in the past," Kruger said. "Having not played for a year, it's not going to happen overnight. . . . We thought Frank can be a point guard and still think that. He's got the tools and he has to look at it from a point guard's perspective."
Maryland Coach Gary Williams said he thinks Illinois will be a tough test for his team.
"They've done a good job of reloading and now this is the year they feel that they're very competitive again in the Big Ten," he said. "Having watched them play Duke, we know Duke's personnel very well, so we can make some comparisons in terms of quickness and physical ability."
When: Saturday and Sunday.
Where: MCI Center.
Tickets: $30. Available for each day.
n Saturday's Games
vs. Seton Hall, 1 p.m
No. 24 Maryland
vs. No. 16 Illinois, 3 p.m.
n Sunday's Games
Consolation, 6:30 p.m.
Championship, 8:30 p.m.