Backcourt leaving Illini breathless
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Another five-point game. Another sickening feeling for Sergio McClain.
Against Iowa on Thursday, the sickness was real. The Illinois guard missed two practices during the week with flulike symptoms.
It got so bad for McClain early in the game that he had to take a break.
"I was having trouble breathing," McClain said. "I was tired."
The Hawkeyes made him feel worse, forcing three turnovers and 5 of 7 missed shots.
So, was it more the flu or the Hawkeyes causing McClain's troubles?
"A little bit of both," McClain said. "Iowa, they just pressured us a lot."
Iowa forced 14 turnovers in the first half and 22 overall. Illini starting guards McClain and Cory Bradford shot 4 of 15 with seven turnovers. They just five assists.
"We needed to ... take care of the ball," McClain said. "We knew what was going to happen, and we prepared for it. We just didn't execute.
"They play a helter-skelter game. You've got to be ready for it."
The 22-point loss was the worst for McClain as an Illini.
"It's embarrassing," McClain said. "They were out there rubbing it in."
A year ago, it was the Hawkeyes who felt embarrassed. Illinois visited Iowa City last January and rocked Iowa by 12. McClain wanted to do it again.
"That was our intentions," McClain said. "This is a good ballclub. They beat Indiana the same way. This is going to be a team to beat in the Big Ten."
The Illini aren't the team to beat in the Big Ten. An 0-2 start has Illinois in its worst conference hole since Lou Henson's final season.
"We can turn this around, or it's going to be a long season," McClain said.
With the crowd on its feet, stomping for an Iowa stop, Cleotis Brown drove the baseline, threw down a two-handed dunk, drew the foul and made the free throw.
Now there's something we haven't seen in awhile.
"I have to start playing like this every game," the junior forward said.
Brown, coming off two of his worst games as an Illini, led the team with 19 points and nine rebounds against the Hawkeyes.
His last two times out before Thursday, he had seven points (against Clemson) and five (against Indiana) – well below his 11.2 average.
"That was good to see," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said. "We need more efforts like that from a lot of different people. And more consistently."
Home on the Range.
He'd love to be in a starring role like Quentin Richardson and Bobby Simmons at DePaul. Or at least a starting one like Damir Krupalija at Illinois and Cordell Henry at Marquette.
But Iowa freshman Joey Range is one up on most of his former News-Gazette All-State teammates when it comes to records and rankings.
And that's the name of the game.
"Sometimes, I look at the other guys that are playing well and get upset because I know I could be doing the same thing," Range said. "But if you look at a lot of their records, they're not winning the games we're winning. That's what it all comes down to."
The Galesburg grad came off the bench Thursday night for one of his best games. He scored 11 points, two off a spectacular reverse layup. He went inside and swatted away a Fess Hawkins shot. He made two steals.
"He's been playing better and better, in my opinion," Iowa coach Tom Davis said. "I don't think he's there yet. He can get smarter and smoother."
Range, Galesburg's all-time leading scorer, came in averaging seven points and 17 minutes a night. He'd like more of both.
"When I come in, I play well. Things happen," Range said. "But (Davis) has been moving me along slower than what I expected."
By this time next week, Shelbyville's Rich Beyers should know where he'll play in 2000.
Schools in the hunt for the Illinois transfer: Southern Illinois, Butler, Southern Mississippi, Colorado and Eastern Illinois.
The prestige of the program – or conference – doesn't concern Beyers.
"That doesn't really bother me," he said. "I just want to go somewhere and play. That's the big thing."
Beyers visited Southern Illinois on Monday and Butler on Wednesday. He came away from Carbondale impressed with what he heard from new Salukis coach Bruce Weber.
In November, SIU signed three in-state seniors, including high-scoring Kent Williams of Mount Vernon.
"They're really making strides down there," Beyers said. "They told me a lot of encouraging things. It's definitely an option."
Beyers also may visit Southern Miss, Colorado and Eastern, which have expressed an interest. He'd like to pick a place by next week, enroll there, sit out the spring and fall semesters and suit up in December 1999.
He'll have 21/2 years of eligibility remaining at his next stop.
In his postgame press conference Thursday, Davis mistakenly referred to Iowa guard Jason Bauer as Eddie Bauer.
After playing against him for three years, Iowa's Hawkeyes are glad to have Sam Okey on their side.
"I hated running into his screens when he was at Wisconsin," Iowa guard Kent McCausland said. "He could always nail you, and he would.
"It will be nice to have him set a few for me now instead of having to feel them the other way."
Okey, the 1996 Big Ten Freshman of the Year with the checkered past, was declared eligible to play this semester by Iowa athletic director Bob Bowlsby.
Thankfully for Illinois, his due date is Jan. 21, when Iowa meets Michigan State.
Okey, an Illini killer, figures to take up major minutes on an Iowa team that already is as deep as the Pacific Ocean.
"You make room for a guy like Okey," said former Hawkeye Bobby Hansen, who calls Iowa games on TV. "He might be their best player."
Thursday's game originally was slated to be played in Champaign with the Feb. 21 rematch in Iowa City.
But Iowa had a scheduling conflict and asked Illinois if it would mind switching. Kruger was happy to oblige.