EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Illinois is 6-7 all-time in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, which resumes this week. Its debut game – played at the United Center and coached by Lon Kruger — resulted in a loss.
Date: Dec. 1, 1999
Headline: UI lineup a work in progress
By LOREN TATE
CHICAGO – For all the "youthful" talk surrounding Duke, Coach Mike Krzyzewski is much closer to settling on a lineup than Illinois' Lon Kruger.
Four Blue Demons played between 34 and 39 minutes in Tuesday's 72-69 triumph at the United Center.
By contrast, only two Illini played more than 25 minutes, and 11 members had at least seven minutes.
Even in such a meaningful game, Kruger must continue his experimental journey of search and shuffle.
"Why didn't Sergio (McClain) play more than 10 minutes?" asked a reporter.
Kruger responded that Cleotis Brown played well before halftime – scoring eight points in the UI's 11-0 run – and Lucas Johnson was the key man in a 3-2 zone that slowed Jason Williams' dribble penetration in the late stages. Johnson's stats don't look like much, but he drew five charging fouls and made a perfect defensive play that was mistakenly judged to be a foul in the last 15 seconds.
While Brown, McClain and Johnson can play together, they are to a great extent competing for the same position.
So Kruger heads into December with the realization that it'll be hard to defeat quality opponents without establishing a set rotation of, say, eight or nine players ... and yet it isn't clear to anyone how that will ultimately shake out.
Duke's veterans took advantage of this situation, senior Chris Carrawell and Shane Battier combining to shoot 22 free throws and keeping the Illini at bay with their late-game accuracy. Duke drew a rash of UI fouls early in the second half, reached the bonus and took advantage.
By contrast, Illinois depended heavily on the outside shooting of guards Cory Bradford and Frank Williams, and both were under stress as they went 9-for-36, a .250 percentage that won't facilitate winning. No one else took more than seven shots, all 12 Illini participants attempting at least one.
Shot distribution is nice in terms of team unselfishness, but what we're seeing so far is a highly competitive group of athletes who haven't really settled on their roles.
If you listen carefully, it is clear that Frank Williams, who didn't start, is still in the learning stages insofar as Kruger's offense is concerned.
"Frank is learning how to be a point guard at this level, when to get the ball out of his hands, when to be aggressive or not, and how to make those around him better."
Reminded that Frank took the last shot to tie, a responsibility that Bradford usually handled last season, Kruger noted:
"Frank is accustomed to taking big shots and he doesn't mind doing it. That's all part of the process of determining what's a good shot for him or for somebody else.
"Duke was able to take us out of what we wanted to do. We have to be more hard-nosed and execute the way we do in practice. We need to get better movement. We'll learn a lot from a game like this."
Showing them how its done
Far more influential in the game was Frank's counterpart, Jason Williams, who blasted around everybody who tried to guard him one on one. Playing 39 of 40 minutes, Jason had 17 points and seven assists.
"We couldn't keep him in front of us," said Kruger. "He is very quick and they were successful in widening us out and driving. That put us in a bind. Our zone was able to take some of that movement away."
Whatever the defensive problems, an offense that managed just 13 points in the first 13 minutes of the second half built a hole too deep to climb out of.
Post-up men couldn't convert or had the ball slapped away. Perimeter shooting was erratic. Bradford had just one field goal after intermission.
But if going deep on the bench has its shortcomings, Kruger may have found something in his prize freshman from Lincoln. Brian Cook contributed nine points in nine minutes, and drew accolades afterward.
"Cook was very active in there and did a nice job," said Kruger. "I'm excited about his progress. He has a good attitude and, as he gets stronger and more experienced, he'll be fine."
Only question is: If Brian plays, who doesn't?
Be patient. Kruger is going to let the players resolve that burning question