Must win for UI? Not just yet

Must win for UI? Not just yet

   ANN ARBOR, Mich.  A stellar start is not a prerequisite for a Big Ten Conference men''s basketball championship.

   The Purdue Boilermakers proved that two years ago, stumbling out of the gate 1-2, but staying on the title track by ripping off wins in 14 of their next 15.

   Just as they did in 1978-79, when the Boilermakers went from 1-2 to conference champs. Indiana (1979-80) and Michigan (1984-85) have done likewise in the last 20 years.

   So don''t slam shut the coffin of the loser of tonight''s 6:30 Crisler Arena date between 25th-ranked Illinois and No. 16 Michigan, both 1-1 in conference play.

   "It''s still way too early to tell who''s going to win it," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said. "There''s not much of a difference between the teams in the Big Ten."

   As far as league records, the man means. As far as size and skill, there aren''t many Big Ten teams that can match Fisher''s troops.

   "They''ve got so many guys that can hurt you that it''s hard to cheat on any one guy or any one area," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.

   The one area that concerns Kruger & Co. the most is the post. There''s 6-foot-8, 300-pound Robert Traylor, whose backboard-shattering slam against Ball State you can see for yourself by visiting Michigan''s basketball web site. There''s 6-9 Maurice Taylor, perhaps the Big Ten''s premier pro prospect. And when former high school All-American Jerod Ward gets tired, in comes 6-9 Maceo Baston, who''s averaging 11.1 points in relief.

   By Big Ten standards, Kruger''s first UI team consists basically of Pygmies, with a 6-6 power forward (Brian Johnson) and a center (Chris Gandy) who''ll give away 93 pounds against Traylor.

   "We''ve played a lot of big teams ... but we haven''t really been pounded down inside yet," said Kruger, adding that "Michigan may change that."

   "We''ll try to make it a 5-on-5 situation instead of five 1 on 1s. If we can do that, we''ve got a chance to keep scratching around here and making good things happen."

   This isn''t Illinois'' first big test. Cal, a two-overtime winner over the Illini, was big. UCLA, a 16-point loser, was big.

   "We''ve shown that we can handle big teams," Gandy said. "We know Michigan''s big inside, so we want to make them kick the ball out on the perimeter and beat us from there."

   Well, maybe that''s not such a bright idea. Patrolling the perimeter for Michigan is Louis Bullock, who sank seven three-pointers in Saturday''s win at Northwestern, one shy of Garde Thompson''s school record.

   Bullock, a sophomore, is already hot on the trail of Glen Rice, his 111 threes 24 shy of Rice''s Wolverine career record.

   "You kind of choose your poison," Kruger said. "If you double down, then Bullock''s going to shoot the three. If you don''t double down, then their big guys can kill you inside, as well.

   "You try to mix it up. You try to vary your defenses a little bit, vary your assignments a little bit, try to keep Michigan from getting in a rhythm."

   The Wolverines, 10-3, haven''t been as big and bad lately as Kruger might make them sound. They did lose to Memphis, after all. And Pitt. And Ohio State, at home.

   "We''re not good enough to have a bad game like we did against them and still win," Wolverines guard Brandun Hughes said. "We''re not Kansas, which can shoot 29 percent and still win. We''ve got to play good ball to win."

   "Hey, we never said we''re a great team," Fisher said.

   No, the Big Ten media did, tabbing the Wolverines the preseason conference favorites ahead of Indiana and Iowa.

   "We have seven players who play," Fisher said. "That''s all we''ve got. A seven-man rotation. Not a lot of options."

   Kruger has a few more, and plans to use them all. He''ll need Jerry Gee, the biggest Illini, and freshman forward Victor Chukwudebe to help Gandy and Johnson bang with the big boys.

   He''ll need reserve guard Kevin Turner''s instant offense (27 points in the last two games).

   And he''ll need Bryant Notree to bounce out of his shooting slump. The UI''s starting junior forward has made good on just four of his last 19 shots.

   "He''s got to slash to the bucket a little more and try to get into the paint a little more," Kruger said. "I don''t think Bryant''s strength is shooting three-pointers. He had six shots (against Ohio State) and five of them were threes.

   "That certainly can''t be the ratio of Bryant''s shot selection."

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