Five concerns Illinois would be wise to address

   CHAMPAIGN  Their top scorer''s in Los Angeles, trying to line up a full-time National Basketball Association job.

   Their top rebounder packed his passport and left the country. He now makes a decent franc playing abroad.

   Even their top dunker split, heading home to Chicago to be with an old friend.

   Just who will replace Kiwane Garris'' baskets, Chris Gandy''s boards and Bryant Notree''s big jams this winter for Lon Kruger''s second Illinois basketball crew? Answers to these and other questions coming in the next 28 days.

   "This is always the most exciting time of the year," Kruger said. "These next four weeks or so are the most enjoyable."

   Fall camp opened Saturday morning and runs through Nov. 16.

   Also on the practice priority list:

   

1. Pick a point guard

   In this corner, wearing the orange trunks, a 6-foot-1 senior out of Libertyville ... Matt Heldman.

   And in this corner, wearing the blue trunks, a 5-11 senior out of Chicago Whitney Young ... Jelani Boline.

   With Garris in the NBA, Robbie Reid in Ann Arbor and Halim Abdullah skipping town, those are Kruger''s main options.

   Heldman''s got the early lead.

   "I would envision Matt stepping out there initially and running the ballclub," Kruger said.

   Heldman, last year''s starting shooting guard, manned the point in high school ("But I did most of the shooting," he said), and his first two seasons at Illinois.

   "I''ll play point, I''ll play two," Heldman said. "I''m happy either way."

   Boline''s a chipper guy these days, too, after being placed on scholarship this summer. He actually has more Division I point guard experience on his resume than any Illini, having served as a spot starter at Oregon State from 1993 to ''95.

   "I''m way more excited going into this year than going into last year," Boline said. "Last year, we knew it was going to be Kiwane all the way, it was his team. This year, it''s basically wide open. There''s a lot of excitement going through my head."

   If Heldman and Boline don''t pan out, there''s always Kevin Turner, who could slide over from shooting guard.

   "It''s not like there''s anyone who''s just totally comfortable, but those guys are good battlers and competitors, and I think they''ll do a good job there," Kruger said.

   

2. Bone up on Bradley

   The Illini haven''t dropped an Assembly Hall opener in five years (Penn State), but Bradley''s no Delaware State or Texas-San Antonio.

   "The Bradleys and Illinois States are teams that are talented but don''t get an opportunity to play the big guys all the time," UI forward Brian Johnson said. "When they do, though, they knock ''em off. I think of them kind of like Coppin State last year, a team that''s always knocking off someone good.

   "You see those teams every year. This year, we''re starting with one."

   The Braves, coached by Kruger''s best bud, Jim Molinari, will get their first crack at Illinois in 24 years on Nov. 17 at the Assembly Hall. They''ll bring 6-8 pro prospect Adebayo Akinkunle, tons of fans and nine guys from last year''s Missouri Valley Conference runner-up.

   No Anthony Parker, though. The best thing to happen to Bradley athletics since the Kirby Puckett days is now the property of the Philadelphia 76ers, who traded for him after he was New Jersey''s first-round pick.

   "They almost beat Michigan last year (66-64 in OT) without Anthony Parker," said freshman Sergio McClain, 1 of 2 Illini from Peoria, the home of the Braves. "They''re going to surprise a lot of people. Bradley''s no slouch."

   Kruger won''t have as long to draw up a game plan for the Braves as he''d like. Practice started three days later than last year, and the season tips off five days earlier than last year''s did.

   

3. Hit the boards

   That means you, Jarrod Gee.

   "My rebounding stats will probably be the most important thing for this team," said Gee, the likely starter at center. "That''s what I''m going to really focus on  being on the boards for my team. Hopefully, I''ll average eight, nine a game."

   In the last 10 years, only two Illini have pulled that off  Deon Thomas (8.0 in 1993) and Shelly Clark (8.3 in ''95).

   Last year''s UI leader, Gandy, grabbed 5.7 a game  the lowest average since Rick Schmidt led the 1975 Illini with 5.3 a game.

   The Illini were erratic on the boards for much of the Big Ten season  only Ohio State had a worse rebounding margin  and they paid for it in the end, Tennessee-Chattanooga grabbing 39 to their 21 in Round 2 of the NCAA tournament.

   "We learned the priority that it really needs to be," Johnson said. "We saw that the reason we weren''t in the Sweet Sixteen last year was because we didn''t rebound the basketball.

   "I think it''s becoming more of a habit for some of us."

   Other help could come from rebounding fool Victor Chukwudebe and former Proviso West jumping jack Awvee Storey, the only player in West Suburban Conference history to win back-to-back rebounding titles.

   Chukwudebe, last year''s lone UI freshman, grabbed 2.2 a game in a limited role last year. He''ll be counted on for more the second time around.

   "I hope so," Chukwudebe said. "When it comes to basketball, I''m not one to shy away from responsibility."

   

4. It''s Storey time

   Last week, Storey needed stitches after cutting his hand on the rim.

   He''s been hanging out a lot up there lately.

   "He can leap out of the gym," McClain said.

   "Some God-given hops," Johnson said.

   The next Kenny Battle, some are saying. That kind of energy.

   "Storey is a horse," Boline said. "He''s in front all the time, always running real hard, working real hard. You wouldn''t expect that out of a freshman, but he''s excited. He''s a very hyper kind of person, but that''s good. He''s always running up and down."

   So where does he fit in? Kruger can see Storey playing anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. Same goes for McClain and Jerry Hester, who''s trying to break both freshmen in quickly.

   "At this point, we''ve got a lot of guys that are kind of ''tweeners, whether it''s two-three, three-four, four-five, one-two," Johnson said. "Maybe other teams have more defined roles. You know, I don''t think anybody''s up at Michigan going, ''Is (Robert) Traylor going to play the three or the five?'' I think, in our case, we''ve got a lot of guys who, to our advantage, can do a lot of things."

   Said Kruger: "We''ve got a lot of versatile guys, and I like that."

   

5. Choose a lineup

   They started three guards last year. Why not four?

   "We''ll play a four-guard lineup a lot, I don''t think there''s any question about that," Kruger said. "Just look at the numbers  we''ve got more numbers on the perimeter than we do inside. We''ll have four perimeter guys in there, probably frequently."

   Seven of 11 scholarship Illini have guard skills: Boline, Arias Davis, Heldman, Hester, McClain, Storey and Turner.

   The only "big" guys: Rich Beyers, Chukwudebe, Gee and Johnson.

   "Look at what the Phoenix Suns did in the playoffs last year (against Seattle)," Hester said. "They played four guards and almost made it to the second round of the playoffs against one of the best teams."

Comments

News-Gazette.com embraces discussion of both community and world issues. We welcome you to contribute your ideas, opinions and comments, but we ask that you avoid personal attacks, vulgarity and hate speech. We reserve the right to remove any comment at our discretion, and we will block repeat offenders' accounts. To post comments, you must first be a registered user, and your username will appear with any comment you post. Happy posting.

Login or register to post comments