Illini in poll position

CHAMPAIGN – It took 10 wins and almost two months of the season.

Finally, the Lon Kruger's first University of Illinois men's basketball bunch has found a couple of opponents that can provide it with what it craves, what has become the cry of '90s athletes.

Hit it, Aretha.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

"We're changing that perception that some people have about us, that we're not tough," junior Bryant Notree said. "The respect is coming."

The Illini, 10-2 and winners of six straight, will likely make their Top 25 debut under Kruger today, when the Associated Press and USAToday/CNN polls are released.

Sixteen-point wins on consecutive Saturdays over UCLA and Missouri should secure the Illini a spot in both. Their last AP appearance was on Jan. 14, at No. 21. They spent another week in the coaches' poll, at No. 25.

"This is right up there with UCLA," junior Brian Johnson said after Saturday's 85-69 whipping of Missouri in St. Louis. "Those are the top two teams we'll play this year."

The Illini's only losses have come to No. 16 Louisville, 10-0, and California, 18th among teams "also receiving votes" in last week's AP poll.

"I believe we're playing well enough right now to be in the Top 25, but I'm not even worried about that," Notree said.

Illinois was third on that list and got all the help it needed to move up from San Jose State and Santa Clara (beat No. 19 Alabama); New Mexico State (beat No. 20 Texas Tech); Louisville (beat No. 25 Boston College); LSU (beat No. 26 Fresno State); and Tulsa (beat No. 27 Oklahoma).

"As a group, I like where we're at," Kruger said. "... But the guys really understand that we've got a long way to go."

Next up: Thursday's Big Ten opener against Purdue. It was at this time last year that the Illini began to fade from the Top 25 picture, dropping their first five conference games and dropping from No. 13 to No. 21 to out.

Oh yes, they remember it well.

"We've kind of took it to heart how we started the Big Ten season off last year," senior Chris Gandy said. "That's something we have to improve on. We want to start off on the right foot."

King of the hill.

The NCAA says he can't play, so Festus Hawkins has spent the holiday break doing some scouting for the Illini.

While his teammates were in St. Louis, Hawkins was in his native Pine Bluff, Ark., watching future Illini Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin run the table at the prestigious King Cotton Classic tournament.

"My reaction?" Hawkins said. "Better watch out for the Illini next year."

Peoria Manual went 3-0 and breezed to the tournament title, beating Reyne (La.) High 77-53 in Saturday's final. McClain had 22 points, Griffin 10.

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