Tate: Rivalries make for full season
Some say Lon Kruger and the Fighting Illini placed themselves in unnecessary jeopardy by opening the basketball season against Bradley.
I say, "Bravo!"
One game in 60 years is ridiculous.
Sure, Bradley might have defeated the UI. But a large university shouldn't be so arrogant as to avoid playing deserving rivals for petty reasons, particularly one so close and with such a proud basketball tradition. It shouldn't take a tight friendship between the two head coaches to pull it off.
This writer isn't looking to pick a fight with late former Illini Doug Mills and Harry Combes, or with Lou Henson, all of whom thought differently.
But ask the fans. Isn't Illinois vs. Bradley a natural? Shouldn't it be continued on a regular basis ... just like Illinois vs. Missouri, Illinois vs. St. Louis and all the Big Ten rivalries?
And, yes, Illinois vs. Illinois State. If Kevin Stallings and the ISU Redbirds think they're better, let's play and see. Bring 'em on.
The intensity and fan involvement in Monday's Assembly Hall shootout will do more to prepare Illinois for the Big Ten than any walkover ... and, heaven knows, Illini fans needed something to get excited about, something to take pride in, after a seemingly endless football season.
"It was a big-time atmosphere," Kruger said. "The crowd was really into the game. Both teams seemed to feed off their fans. We didn't get anything easy, and we didn't give anything easy. We got ahead, and then Bradley made a nice run and we responded."
Illini win despite so-so shooting
Illinois won the game 69-59 in spite of a mediocre field goal effort. Kruger's senior-laden club shot 39 percent, including 4 of 16 from the three-point arc. As in the two exhibition games, the ball wasn't dropping.
The Illini did it by capitalizing on the mysterious but undeniable advantages of the rocking home court.
They did it by following Brian Johnson's lead in hustling, blocking out and "doing the little things."
They did it by making a 21-2 run when a green Bradley team came unglued early, by calmly sinking their first 15 free throws while the Braves were misfiring, and ultimately by getting 13 extra possessions (and 12 extra field attempts) via a 16-9 turnover advantage and a 15-9 edge on offensive rebounds.
They did it by blocking six shots in a tenacious man-to-man defense that, with Johnson setting the tone, drew Braves center Adebayo Akinkunle into three charging fouls before halftime.
They did it by taking advantage of Bradley's unsteady forward play, coach Jim Molinari sorely missing Northwestern transfer Matt Moran (sprained ankle) and feeling impelled to use reserves more than the starters at those positions.
They did it with balance, four starters hitting double digits while Bradley had only one with more than 10.
They did it by standing firm in the face of a grinding counterattack led by long-shooting Springfield Southeast sophomore Rob Dye (23 points). When the lead was trimmed to 55-52, Jerry Hester popped out of a wild scramble for a short jumper. When Akinkunle shook loose for his third field goal, Kevin Turner answered from 15 feet. Then Akinkunle missed from the line and Illini Jarrod Gee spun in from the post, providing the 61-54 lead that the Illini nursed home.
This game meant something
It was a contest with crucial moments and turning points ... with tension-packed timeouts and free throws that mattered. It was a contest with reputations at stake.
Kruger's strategy made it obvious this was not a time for experimentation. He hung with his five seniors for 32 minutes or more, giving only one other, freshman Sergio McClain, more than six minutes off the bench. Junior college transfer Arias Davis didn't even get in.
Molinari recognized the advantage of experience in such an opener when he said: "We are a young team, and we just got flustered. Akinkunle's ability to not do anything in the first half was big. Give Illinois credit. They stayed into his body, and he got some charging calls that really hurt us."
Mark it down: Illinois will lose one of these years, maybe even in Chicago next December when the five senior starters are gone.
And if that happens, it won't be the end of the world. Rather, it'll be an exciting contest that everyone should find a way to enjoy.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette.