Tate: UI schedule gets tougher in Year Two

   As part of his revamp-and-invigorate plan for Fighting Illini basketball, Lon Kruger set upon a path to upgrade the schedule.

   No more rollover teams in the now-defunct Illini Classic. Fewer Chicago States and Delaware States. Kruger dared to add Bradley and St. Louis as home-and-road rivals alongside Illinois-Chicago. He hooked on with Texas and Clemson.

   Disregarding the Big Ten''s new postseason tournament and assuming the inevitable second-round matchup with Louisville in San Juan Nov. 28, Kruger''s Illini will play at least 15 games against teams projected for the NCAA 64-team tournament by Athlon Magazine ... and that doesn''t include Missouri, Michigan and a couple potentially rugged foes Athlon didn''t put on its 64-team list.

   The Sporting News confirms the degree of difficulty, tabbing UCLA No. 3, Clemson No. 6, Purdue No. 9, Iowa No. 13 and Indiana No. 19.

   "We want to play the type of schedule that the players and the fans enjoy," Kruger said. "It''ll be tough this year. We could get beat up early. But this is the type of program we want to build."

Reality limits scheduling

   Reality and home-court needs put certain limits on scheduling.

   Kruger is obligated to play 16 home contests, including two exhibitions. With an NCAA limit of 27 dates in the continental United States, it breaks down as follows: Big Ten postseason tournament counts one, the league requires 16 games and trips to the United Center and Keil Center take up two more. That''s 19. Throw in UIC and St. Louis, and that''s 21.

   Kruger had to bring in Bradley, Georgia Southern, Texas-Pan American, Maine and Texas this season to meet the 16-game Assembly Hall requirement.

   "People say, ''Why not schedule all strong teams?'' " Kruger said, "but we have to arrange some games that we don''t have to return. It won''t work otherwise.

   "A key for us in the future is playing a game at the United Center that we don''t have to return. This year, we travel to UCLA as a payback for UCLA coming to Chicago last December. Next year, we are obligated to return the Clemson game. That''s why it would be ideal to get someone like Notre Dame to play each year in Chicago."

   While Kruger wrangles with the business aspects of it, the UI players rejoice in playing top teams and top players. UI leader Jerry Hester can''t wait to smack up against a half-dozen small forwards ranked ahead of him by The Sporting News  World University Games teammate Greg Buckner of Clemson, Big Ten standouts Sam Jacobson of Minnesota and Sam Okey of Wisconsin, Kris Clack of Texas and, if it breaks this way in San Juan, Louisville''s Nate Johnson and Georgia Tech''s Matt Harpring.

   Jarrod Gee is anxious to test his improvement against four Big Ten centers on everyone''s must-watch list  Northwestern''s Evan Eschmeyer, Michigan''s Robert Traylor, Purdue''s Brad Miller and Indiana''s Jason Collier.

To be the best, play the best

   The point is, Illinois will face gobs of teams with supposedly more talent ... and the Illini players love it.

   "If you want to be the best, you have to play the best," senior Brian Johnson said. "I like the idea of solid tests night after night, of meeting high quality from different conferences. We have good depth, and that will work to our benefit."

   Guard Matt Heldman agreed:

   "We''re excited about testing ourselves. I''d much rather play the tough schedule."

   A drawback is Illini freshmen will have little margin for error. But that''s OK with Sergio McClain and Awvee Storey.

   "We faced good teams in high school (Peoria Manual), and we''ll be doing the same thing here," McClain said. "Our juices will really be going in that first game against Bradley. That''s my hometown, and a lot of people will be looking to see how I adjust to college. There''ll be tight situations right from the beginning, and that''s how you learn."

   Said Storey, who played a year in prep school after Proviso West:

   "I''ve waited a long time to be able to compete against NBA-type people. It''s a great honor. Now, I get a chance to establish my talent and see if I can handle it. I want to play the best."

   Start the countdown. It''s just four weeks to Bradley.

   Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.

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