For those who believe Lon Kruger is ushering in a bright, new era for Fighting Illini basketball, Sunday's NCAA tournament announcement brought further encouragement.
Illinois is playing the right opponent (Southern Cal) on the right day (Friday) in the right bracket in the right location, one that Kruger knows from having played in the Final Four in Charlotte, N.C., in 1994.
"We want to send Kiwane Garris and Chris Gandy out with a bang," said Illini junior Jarrod Gee. More than that, Gee and his teammates want to change the growing perception of Illinois and the Big Ten as postseason failures in the 1990s. Counting last year's NIT loss to Alabama, the UI is 1-5 since reaching the Final Four in 1989.
"I definitely see Illinois basketball as on the upswing," Gee added. "We had a new start with a new staff, and we accomplished some good upsets. A couple of wins in Charlotte would change the perception even further."
Tourney selectors, who definitely don't base picks on past years – check out 1996 Final Four teams Syracuse and Mississippi State, and recent powers Arkansas, Connecticut and Michigan – must have seen something about Illinois that impressed them. After runaway champ Minnesota, Illinois was next among conference teams as a sixth seed (between 21 and 24).
So even though Illinois went 0-6 against Wisconsin, Purdue, Cal and Louisville, the selection board paid heed to quality performances against Minnesota, Pac-10 champ UCLA, Big 12 tourney finalist Missouri, TCU and Indiana, and double triumphs over Michigan State and Penn State, and didn't penalize the Illini too heavily for splits with Michigan and Iowa.
USC one of last selected
The drop from Minnesota's No. 1 seed to Illinois' No. 6 was "representative of the standings," said Kruger, adding, "We're pleased with the way it worked out."
Southern Cal, meanwhile, was one of the last three teams (with Oklahoma and UMass) of the 34 selected Sunday to join the 30 automatic qualifiers. The Trojans entered March with a distant No. 52 rating in the RPI, and lost their final game to Washington, 94-84, despite 32 points by Rodrick Rhodes.
Because Rhodes (6-foot-6) and David Crouse (6-11) are so formidable, the undersized Illini are bound to have trouble in the lane. But that would be the case with almost any foe that a sixth seed would draw, particularly a weak-rebounding club that finished 11th in the Big Ten in opponent field goal percentage. Gaining a standoff in the middle is something Kruger must resolve in the future. For now, Illinois is a perimeter team and must live or die on the three-pointers.
No player anywhere wants a postseason win worse than All-Big Ten guard Kiwane Garris, 0-3 as a starter in three previous Illini failures.
"It's been very disappointing," said Garris. "We've led in those games and couldn't hold it. This time we've got to get ahead and build on it.
"I'm sure we'll concentrate on toughening our defense this week. Teams have been high-lowing us, pounding us inside and then beating the double-team with good perimeter shooting when they pitch it out. That'll be a point of emphasis for us this week."
Illini couldn't finish NCAA bids
If Illinois wasn't sharp in losing to Vanderbilt 85-68 at Salt Lake City in 1993, the Illini made strong efforts the next two years against Tulsa and Georgetown. Each was a case of not finishing what they started.
In 1994 at Oklahoma City, the UI led Georgetown 73-67 and had Garris out front on a breakaway that failed to materialize, and the Hoyas rallied to outscore the Illini 17-4 in the final six-plus minutes to win 84-77.
"We were winning throughout and we just broke down," said Garris.
A year later in Albany, N.Y., Illinois forged a 49-38 lead over Tulsa with 12-plus minutes to go, when Shea Seals and his teammates began raining threes. Still, Illinois led 60-57 with 3:34 showing when Garris missed two free throws, and the UI was still ahead 62-61 in the final minute when Jerry Hester blocked a shot, only to have the ball deflect out to a Tulsa guard who fired it up for what turned out to be a game-winning four-point play.
Luck plays a part in these things. Long range, the job is to build a team strong enough to take luck out of it. Short range, the task is to attain an emotional peak and drain enough treys to overcome inside deficiencies.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.