Illini profess faith in Kruger

Illini profess faith in Kruger

   CHAMPAIGN  No need to consult your friendly neighborhood bookie or one of Dionne Warwick''s psychic friends to find out who should win Saturday''s Border War  or the 18 Illinois basketball games after that.

   In most cases, Illini coach Lon Kruger says, the smart money will be on the other guys.

   "Because of our size, or lack of, we''ve got to approach every game with an underdog mentality," Kruger said. "You''ve got to go into each ballgame feeling like you have to play great. Have to get every loose ball. Have to put forth a great effort on the boards just to hold your own.

   "I think that''s the mentality this club needs to play with throughout the year. I think if we start thinking otherwise, then we''ll get tricked real quickly."

   So far, so good. The smallish Illini leave today for St. Louis with a glittery 9-2 record, a quality win (79-63 over then-No. 24-ranked UCLA) and confidence galore.

   In Kruger they trust.

   "Trust is a big word in our program," junior forward Bryant Notree said.

   It''s one of first-year coach Kruger''s favorites, one he can be heard throwing around every practice, every press conference.

   Trust me.

   Trust your teammates.

   "That''s very important with any team," Kruger said. "Certainly in a new situation, it even takes on a greater significance  the ability to do things for one another, to enjoy doing things for one another, the satisfaction that you receive from making a good play that results in a scoring opportunity for a teammate, diving on the floor and tapping the ball to a teammate.

   "We''ve talked a lot about those things."

   Several such conversations took place in the days leading up to last Saturday''s UCLA game as the Illini tried to devise a scheme to stop 6-foot-9 twin towers Jelani McCoy and J.R. Henderson.

   Chris Gandy, 6-9, had Henderson.

   Brian Johnson, 6-6, had McCoy.


   "When I''m trying to front a guy that big, they can throw over whenever they want  if I don''t get help from behind," Johnson said. "I''ve got to trust that Chris is going to be there for me, and he was all day. I was there for him, too.

   "We trust each other to watch each other''s back, and we''ve been there all year. We''re starting to get a feel for that and we''re real confident in each other, so it breeds success."

   It''s easy, Kiwane Garris says, to trust a guy like Kruger.

   Not so much because of his Final Four ring or his two SEC Coach of the Year plaques, but because he''s been there, done that, starring at guard for Kansas State back in his day.

   "He''s played the game," Garris said. "It''s easier to trust somebody that''s played the game in college and won awards like he has."

   And it''s easy to trust somebody that puts together a game plan that holds McCoy, the national leader in field goal percentage, to three shots.

   "When we''ve executed the game plan that he''s put forth, we''ve won going away," Johnson said.

   The players say Kruger made the system easy to buy into from the start. Just the way he explained it:

   Pressing plus hustling plus diving all over the floor equals winning.

   "It''d be nice to come in and say ''Trust me, like me,'' but that''s not the way it works," Kruger said. "From Day 1, we basically leveled with them. We told them this is the way we wanted to do things. We want to talk to you a lot, we want to listen to you a lot, we want to develop a game plan together.

   "We''re going to expect a lot of effort, we''re going to expect a high degree of intensity, but if you want to have a good basketball team, you should expect that of yourself."

   Illinois leads the Big Ten in turnover margin (23 forced per game, 15 committed) and has 13 more steals (101) than any other league member.

   To put up those kinds of numbers, you''ve got to press effectively. To press effectively, you''ve got to trust your buddies.

   "It''s 5 on 5, not five 1 on 1s," Kruger said.

   "We''ve had that trust in each other and we''ve been winning games because of it," Garris said.

   Nothing against the old regime, Johnson says, but the 1995-96 Illini didn''t trust one another like the current gang does.

   "In the past, we''ve been there, then we''ve missed an assignment," Johnson said. "It hasn''t been a case of not wanting to do it, we''ve just been a little ineffective, a little inconsistent. So then you start wondering, ''Well, is he going to be there this time?''

   "But lately, we''ve been there for each other and we''ve made that a point of emphasis. That doesn''t allow for a lot of doubt because we''ve made it work."

Johnson hurting.

   Johnson was rushed to Carle Hospital Thursday night after taking a finger to the eye during practice.

   Johnson suffered a double scratch of the cornea and a cut on his eyelid and was scheduled to be re-evaluated this morning.

   "It''s not life-threatening or anything like that ... but I can''t see so well out of it right now," Johnson said. "I should be able to go (Saturday)."