'Hand' it to UI forward for playing

CHAMPAIGN – His fingers may be black and blue, but Brian Johnson expects to get the green light for Wednesday's Illinois-Ohio State game.

"I went with half an eye against Mizzou, had preseason stitches, this is no big deal," the Illini forward said Monday.

Johnson suffered what was diagnosed Monday as a severe sprain of his right (shooting) hand while chasing a rebound in Illinois' 70-51 Sunday win over Michigan.

He played in pain for much of the second half, putting in 24 minutes off the bench, but couldn't do much at practice the next day.

"I don't even think I can shoot with it like this," Johnson said, pointing to three swelled knuckles and two discolored fingers. "It's surprisingly sore."

X-rays revealed no broken bones. So Johnson, who was relieved by Champaign Central grad David Freeman for a long first-half stretch, plans to give it a go in Illinois' Assembly Hall season finale.

"Brian's a tough guy," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.

Three-peat.

Add another first to Kiwane Garris' lengthy list.

The senior guard on Monday became the first Illini to be selected Big Ten Player of the Week three times in a season.

Like the last time he was so honored (Feb. 10), Garris shares the award this week, with Minnesota guard Bobby Jackson, also a three-time winner.

Garris and Jackson join some elite company. Since the Big Ten started honoring players in 1981-82, only six others have been honored as many times.

Purdue's Glenn Robinson won the award a record five times in 1993-94. Other three-time winners: Michigan's Roy Tarpley (1984-85), Michigan State's Steve Smith (1989-90), Ohio State's Jimmy Jackson (1991-92), Indiana's Calbert Cheaney (1992-93) and Michigan State's Shawn Respert (1994-95).

All five were named Big Ten Player of the Year later that season.

The Big Ten will announce its MVP next Monday, with Jackson, Garris and Iowa's Andre Woolridge the front-runners.

Garris, currently the Big Ten's leading scorer in conference games, distanced himself from two-time winners Ken Norman (1985-86 and 1986-87) and Kendall Gill (1988-89) with a 56-point week in wins over Penn State and Michigan.

"When Kiwane is playing, they're as hard as anyone to beat," Michigan coach Steve Fisher said.

Senior send-off.

Plenty of good seats still are available for Kiwane Garris night.

As of midday Monday, about 13,500 tickets had been sold for the Ohio State game – the last Assembly Hall stop for departing seniors Garris, Chris Gandy and Herb Caldwell.

"If we win, it's going to be pretty emotional," Garris said.

The three will be honored in a three-minute pregame ceremony, with family members joining them on the court. Garris will be accompanied by mother Brenetta Garris, aunt Hattie Williams and uncle Tommy Brown; Gandy by his parents, Leo and Lula Hunt; and Caldwell by his wife, Latosha, and parents, Paul Herbert and JoeAnna Caldwell.

The Illini's final game, Saturday at Purdue (11 a.m.), has been sold out since October, ticket manager George Ade said.

Nothing new there. It'll be Big Ten sellout No. 105 in a row for the Boilermakers at Mackey Arena.

Polling place.

No one made a bigger move in the second-to-last Associated Press Top 25 of 1996-97 than the Illini, who jumped from No. 21 to No. 15 Monday.

Just one national publication had the Illini ranked as high in its preseason poll: Sports Illustrated, which ranked them 12th.

Illinois was No. 22 in Dick Vitale's Preview and No. 49 in The Sporting News, but not in Street & Smith's top 25 or Lindy's top 40.

More important than the Illini's AP ranking is its RPI ranking, up from No. 26 last week to No. 23 – still behind four of their opponents (No. 12 UCLA, No. 13 Louisville, No. 14 Indiana, No. 21 California).

The RPI will be one of the first things the NCAA tournament selection committee looks at when it gathers in Kansas City, Mo., next weekend. Wins over Ohio State and Purdue, No. 28 this week, would help the UI cause.

"If we can win out, we've got a chance to get a nice seed in the tournament. We could crack the top 16 teams," Johnson said. "If you're looking to advance, there's no better way to succeed than getting some good matchups early."

Coach canned.

A second coach who lost at the Assembly Hall this season is looking for new work today.

Leonard Drake, whose Central Michigan Chippewas took third place at the final Illini/Pepsi Classic in December, joined Northwestern's Ricky Byrdsong on the unemployment line Monday.

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