Regardless of what you may have heard over the Champaign-Urbana clothesline, there are a whole bunch of deep-throated, raucous and emotional Illini basketball fans out there.
I know because I saw about 15,000 of them Dec. 21 in Chicago, and an even more boisterous – if smaller – clan of Orange and Blue fanatics in that Missouri record crowd of 22,371 on Saturday night in balmy St. Louis.
Now, thanks to the anticipated arrival of Gene Keady and his three-time Big Ten champs – and thanks even more to the real possibility of Illinois beating Purdue for the ninth time in 12 tries – we actually may see the Assembly Hall throbbing with warm bodies Thursday. It might even get noisy.
It is with full awareness of what happened last year after an 11-1 start that we report this 10-2 Illini club, minus Jerry Hester and with marginal rebounding ability, is developing along the lines of Illinois best teams in the 1990s. Three of those Lou Henson productions finished the Big Ten at 11-7, a worthy goal in a recharged conference.
Even with Michigan stumbling in a one-pointer against Memphis (73-72), the league boasts three legitimate members of the nations top 15. The leagues top eight members (discounting Purdue, Ohio State and Northwestern) reached today with an overall record of 73-13. Road wins will be hard to come by in this cut-throat league.
Slots open on UI bandwagon
There are several reasons to lift a leg onto the rumbling UI bandwagon.
You asked for full-court excitement and got it. You asked for Lon Kruger to show he can recruit and he did. As encouraging as early UI signees are the promise of juniors Corey Maggette of Oak Park Fenwick, Rod Thompson of Chicago Carver and point guard Frankie Williams, MVP in Peoria Manuals runaway triumph in the King Cotton Classic. Kruger is only a couple of attainable recruits shy of lighting the bombshell fuse.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, this veteran assemblage is loosening up and getting enough breakaways to put together some genuinely impressive shooting statistics. Finally! Jumping all over Missouri mistakes – 27 Tiger turnovers resulted in 26 UI points – the Illini shot 53.3 percent, a higher field goal mark than at any time in an 18-13 season a year ago. It was the UIs fourth venture over 50 percent in the last eight games, not counting a 49.3 mark against Chicago State.
Entering his fourth Big Ten campaign, team leader Kiwane Garris is healthy and surrounded by six experienced players with whom he has been playing at least three years.
Bryant Notree hasnt found his perimeter shooting touch but has settled comfortably into Hesters small forward slot. Matt Heldman has become consistently deadly. Chris Gandy, who can force big men away from the lane with his face-up accuracy, combined with Jerry Gee to make 9 of 11 fielders and 23 points in 46 total minutes Saturday night. Team balance was such that nine players hit first-half baskets.
Inspiration alone wont do it
If, of course, this team is riding high on inspiration alone, it wont hold up.
But consider that even in their two losses, the Illini fought good Louisville and California teams to the wire ... and then they came off final exams to put quality performances back to back, ripping UCLA and burying Mizzou with 63 percent second-half shooting.
This is great preparation for conference play, said Kruger, harping on his main theme of continual progress.
I like where were at and yet we have a long way to go. If we thought we had arrived, if that was our attitude, then I wouldnt be pleased about where were at. As long as we play with an underdog mentality, as long as we realize we have to fight for everything we get, then Ill like where we are.
Kruger also challenged Garris to be more aggressive in getting shots, while also creating for others, saying: We ask so much of him, to run the team and break down defenses, and we also need him to go north-south more.
In other words, a 17-point average is good, but it may take more. It may require that his gutty late-game skills be unveiled earlier.
I feel different than when I had the injuries last year, responded Garris. Weve worked hard to show this team can compete in the Big Ten. Weve practiced that way every day. We wont back off on our pressure.
Hibernating Illini fans may find it worth a look. And as a bonus, Keady might toss his coat into the first row.
Hes done the striptease before.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.