Asmussen | How history might repeat itself for Illini basketball

Asmussen | How history might repeat itself for Illini basketball

Check if this rings a bell: The Illinois men’s basketball team gets off to a woeful start to the season, leaving many in the community grumbling “I don’t think they are going to win another game.”

The team has a young guard, who can shoot the three like an NBA player. There’s an Illinois kid who can do everything. A couple of transfers are helping out. One of the top rookies misses some valuable early time.

Oh yeah, and later in the season, the guys figure it out. They start to win. They get the home folks talking about the future.

The current Illini, right?

It all fits, but it is not the one I am thinking of.

Instead, step back two decades to Lon Kruger’s third season as Illinois coach.

The previous year, five seniors led the Illini to the Big Ten title. But they all moved on.

The roster turnover had a major negative impact. The 1998-99 team went from first to worst, finishing last in the then-11 team Big Ten.

Cory Bradford, Cleotis Brown, Sergio McClain and pals were 3-13 in the Big Ten. The current team has already doubled that total.

There were heartbreakers (51-49 loss to Michigan State, double-overtime 70-64 loss to Indiana) and blowouts (75-53 loss at Wisconsin, 84-62 at Iowa).

Nobody was happy about it. The forecast was Midwest-winter bleak.

Stun run

The current team rides a four-game winning streak going into tonight’s matchup at Wisconsin. Great work by Brad Underwood’s guys.

From the looks of things lately, they aren’t done winning. Six more conference games are on the schedule before the Big Ten tournament in Chicago.

Kruger’s ’98-99 team dropped four of five before going to the United Center on March 4. The opener against No. 23 Minnesota was supposed to be the end of the road. The Gophers beat the Illini by 12 during the regular season and were considered a lock for the NCAA tournament.

Playing at the United Center, their home-away-from-home, the Illini showed they were familiar with the baskets. While Minnesota struggled from the perimeter, Bradford nailed six three-pointers in a 67-64 opening-round win.

On to the quarterfinals where Bob Knight (remember him?) and No. 17 Indiana waited. Lucas Johnson, who later became famous for tormenting Arizona coach Lute Olson, harassed the Hoosiers this time. He scored 17 points and bottled up Indiana star Luke Recker in a lopsided 82-66 victory.

The Illini advanced to Saturday’s semifinal against No. 11 Ohio State. The Final Four-bound Buckeyes were led by guards Michael Redd and Scoonie Penn.

Didn’t matter. Illinois was on a roll. For the first time all season, the team shot better than 50 percent from the field and Bradford led the way in a 79-77 victory.

Afterward, then-Ohio State coach Jim O’Brien said what everyone else was thinking.

“In my mind, they are unquestionably the best last-place team in America,” he said.
Freshman forward Damir Krupalija put it another way: “I think even my parents would have actually laughed at me if I said we were going to be playing in the championship game.”

The title game was a bad draw for the Illini: No. 2-ranked and Final Four-bound Michigan State.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans went 15-1 to win the Big Ten regular-season title. Mateen Cleaves, Morris Peterson and friends never gave the Illini a chance, cruising to a 67-50 for their first conference tournament title.

What happened next

For the Illinois basketball program, the near-miracle finish set up a decade of success.
Kruger stayed one more season in C-U, taking the team back to the NCAA tournament in 2000 Then, the Atlanta Hawks made an offer Kruger couldn’t refuse, so he tried the NBA for a bit. No problem, future Hall of Famer Bill Self came from Tulsa and went to three NCAA tournaments before moving to Kansas.

Bruce Weber led the Illini to five NCAA tournament berths in six years, including the 2005 title game.
Given the youth and talent of the current team, a similar streak is possible.

Looking for reassurance that I’m not off my rocker, I called someone who should know: 1998-99 team member Nate Mast.

The Champaign Central graduate, Mast stayed in basketball for years after his playing days.
Now working as the COO for a commercial insurance agency in Mount Vernon, Mast keeps a close eye on his alma mater. He has watched most of the games and been to a few in person. He even took a turn as radio analyst for the Florida Atlantic game when Deon Thomas and Doug Altenberger weren’t available.

Early in the season, Mast saw a team learning how to finish games.

“The advantage that our ‘98-99 team had was we were a part of a Big Ten championship team the year before that,” Mast said.

But many of those players were forced into new roles. Similar to what’s happening with Underwood’s Illini, most notably with Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili.

“You’ve got young guys that are being relied upon to be big playmakers,” Mast said. “I think it’s what we’re starting to see with Ayo and Giorgi making some plays when it counts most.”
Winning basketball games isn’t easy. The 1998-99 Illini and current Illini found that out.

“You’ve got to go through some bad stuff to get to the good stuff,” Mast said. “They had some close games they could have won. When you get close enough to taste the victory and you don’t quite get it, it just makes you hungry for more. I think what you’re seeing is a team that is tired of losing the close ones.”

The current team is finding its way. A stern, steady hand like Underwood’s helps.

Another magical week at the United Center is possible. Illinois has the rest of the Big Ten talking. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago.

“There were zero expectations on us to do anything in the tournament,” Mast said. “If these guys have the confidence, most definitely they can make a run. They have the pieces and they’ve shown they can do it.”

Mast likes where the program is headed.

“You’ve got the foundation that the Illini Nation is looking for to win not just one year,” Mast said, “but several years in a row.”

Bob Asmussen can be reached at 217-351-5233 or by email at asmussen@news-gazette.com.

Then and now

Comparing the 1998-99 Illinois basketball team to the current one:

That was then...

Cory Bradford | Guard, Freshman
Big Ten’s best freshman-led team in scoring while hitting 85 threes.

Cleotis Brown | Guard, Junior
Junior college transfer finished second on the team in scoring.

Sergio McClain | Guard/Forward, Sophomore
Pride of Peoria led the Illini in assists and steals.

Fess Hawkins | Center, Sophomore
Arkansas native led team in rebounds, blocked shots in his only season.

Victor Chukwudebe | Forward, Junior
Two-time captain from Springfield enjoyed statistically the best season of his career.

This is now...

Trent Frazier | Guard, Sophomore
Floridian leads team in scoring, three-pointers. Just like Bradford.

Ayo Dosunmu | Guard, Freshman
Assist leader, No. 2 scorer does a bit of everything like McClain.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili | Forward, Freshman
’99 team might have upset Michigan State in the Big Ten title game with a guy like Bezhanishvili.

Aaron Jordan | Guard, Senior
No surprise, the only senior on the team is the most consistent at the free-throw line.

Kipper Nichols | Forward, Junior
Scoring average has dipped after averaging double figures last season.

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