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Blue Ribbon Yearbook

LOCATION: Champaign, IL
LAST SEASON: 14-18 (.438)
NICKNAME: Fighting Illini
COLORS: Blue & Orange
HOMECOURT: Assembly Hall (16,450)
COACH: Lon Kruger (Kansas State '75)
record at school 59-38 (3 years)
career record 296-223 (17 years)
ASSISTANTS: Robert McCullum (Birmingham Southern '76)
Rob Judson (Illinois '80)
Steve Henson (Kansas State '90)
TEAM WINS: (last 5 years) 19-18-22-23-14
RPI (last 5 years) 42-62-25-24-63
1998-99 FINISH: Lost in conference final.

ESPN.com Clubhouse

Lon Kruger was a gutty, heady point guard for Jack Hartman at Kansas State. At four head coaching stops, he has proven he paid attention to the teachings of one of college basketball's masters.

At Pan American from 1983-86, Kruger inherited a team that had won five games and went from seven victories his first season to a 20-8 mark three years later.

Returning to KSU, the prodigal son took a program with less than .500 success the previous four years and reached the NCAA Tournament right out of the chute with a 20-11 record. In his second of four seasons, when football barely existed in Manhattan, Kan., Kruger led a team with Mitch Richmond to a 25-9 mark and a berth in the NCAA Elite Eight.

Florida beckoned in 1990. And starting with the remains of a 7-21 team, Kruger engineered another renaissance, this time in an area that thought all brown balls should be pointed. His teams reached the NIT semifinals in 1992 and the NCAA Final Four in 1994, the latter with a school-record 29 wins.

Two years after that stunning turnaround, Kruger was asked to replace Illinois institution Lou Henson, whose program had peaked in 1989 with a Final Four team that probably should have been the champion in Seattle. In his last five seasons in Champaign, Henson's teams averaged just 17.2 victories.

The initial skepticism about Kruger's selection was understandable, especially with former Henson aide Jimmy Collins a popular-but-implausible candidate. But as people began to appreciate Kruger's commitment, intelligence and recruiting ability, they understood exactly what they had a leader who is more about substance than style and a coach who has developed more successful programs than many television networks.

Blue Ribbon Analysis

There's a surprise every season in Big Ten basketball. This time, it's Illinois. If Ohio State could go from one league triumph to 12 and eight wins overall to 27, the Illini can make a similar leap from last place to serious contention.

Nearly everyone in Urbana-Champaign thinks that rise will be meteoric. And it could be, with double-digit conference wins and close to double the number of overall victories.

But when fans expect Illinois to reach the Final Four, they're thinking with their hearts, not their heads. It's never quite that easy.

Kruger's club is probably still a year away from a legitimate shot at winning it all. Until then, there should be plenty to cheer about with arguably the school's best team since the 1989 "Flyin' Illini."

Progress is often measured in baby steps for big-time programs. Illinois' growth could be as dramatic as the debuts of Williams, Griffin and Cook.

Something is cooking in Assembly Hall. And we're about to sample another serving of Kruger stew, a delectable dish.

There is a difference between low-key and no-clue, as Kruger quickly proved. By solidifying relationships everywhere he could, he did the same thing with a shimmering pool of prospects in Peoria, Ill., that Michigan State's Tom Izzo did at about the same time in Flint, Mich. The fact that there are no Chicago-area players on the Illini roster is their loss, not Kruger's.

No one does a better job of working with the talent he has on campus. And he has proven he can get good players, if not always great ones. And, at Illinois, Kruger can usually attract better than good.

His impact was seen immediately, as a 7-11 team in the conference improved to 11-7 and 22 wins overall, the most in eight years. In his second season, the Illini shared the league crown with Izzo's Spartans, an improbable finish and the school's first title since 1984. Illinois reached the second round of the NCAA before finishing 23-10.

Last season's plunge was predictable after seven seniors departed. But opponents needed to enjoy what they could. Kruger's program is back and flashed its teeth in the Big Ten Tournament, when it pulled three upsets against ranked opponents and nearly barged its way into NCAA play with a losing record.

Under Kruger's direction, the Illini have beaten 14 ranked teams. This group should beat some perceived powers, too, after a carefully scripted visit to Australia the same trip his Gators took en route to the 1994 Final Four.

It's hard to say whether that working vacation will be as important as last season's closing surge and NCAA selection committee scare from the United Center. Three weeks after that surprising success, Illinois began preparations for Australia, so the carryover was hard to ignore.

Super prospect Frank Williams was with the team on its unbeaten tour and got another lesson in "Life as a Point Guard," one of the most important classes he will take from an excellent teacher. It was strangely similar to what happened at Florida when point guard Dan Cross became a leader during an overseas tour.

Williams will still test Kruger's patience, and vice versa. But being with budding star Cory Bradford and the rest of a deep roster could only have helped him. Any time a player, let alone a point guard, can be around Kruger that long, they are probably going to be better than they were.

(6-2, 196 lbs., JR, SG, #13, 15.4 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.9 apg, 2.2 tpg, 0.8 spg, 35.3 minutes, .387 FG, .415 3PT, .678 FT, Raleigh Egypt HS/Memphis, Tenn.)

After sitting out his freshman season, Bradford's Big Ten debut was the equal of any in the league except Scoonie Penn's.

With opponents knowing he was Illinois' only game-breaking scorer, Bradford delivered like a senior and often had to do that with the responsibilities of a point guard. He proved his point rather quickly and showed flashes of where he could be with additional seasons of eligibility.

Bradford's range makes him difficult to zone. And his quickness allows him to get his own shot. He would have to rank with Ohio State's Michael Redd and Indiana's A.J. Guyton as the league's toughest two-guards to stop.

His favorite athlete is Penny Hardaway, another Memphis product. But Bradford makes even sweeter string music from 23 feet and can take the ball to the basket when he has to.

A shooter this good from the next area code should make close to 85 percent of his free throws, an area for definite improvement this season. If he is under 70 percent at the line again, the Illini won't reach their potential.

Bradford was selected for the USA team in the World University Games and helped his country win the gold medal. He averaged 6.3 ppg in those games and could have done more if he had asserted himself.

Let's just say if our preseason All-Big Ten team had an extra spot, it would go to Bradford. He might be one of the top five players when March rolls around. For now, he makes a great sixth man.

(6-3, 215 lbs., JR, SF, #40, 8.6 ppg, 3.4 rpg, 2.6 apg, 3.6 tpg, 2.3 spg, 29.6 minutes, .375 FG, .207 3PT, .607 FT, Manual HS/Peoria, Ill.)

Few wide bodies play with a better feel for the game than the son of legendary Manual coach Wayne McClain. If only he could shoot

McClain's percentages improved last season, as hard as that is to believe. With two more years of concentrated work, that glaring weakness might disappear to the point his other skills won't be minimized.

McClain was second in the Big Ten in steals and seemed to find a comfort zone in Australia. He averaged 11.9 ppg and shot nearly 77 percent at the line, a stop-the-presses statistic.

He'll have to be better to stay in the lineup with all the competition at practice. But he has the ability to be a major asset and the knowledge of what it takes to win.

(6-7, 230 lbs., SR, PF, #00, 5.6 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.5 apg, 0.9 tpg, 0.6 bpg, 21.0 minutes, .446 FG, .629 FT, Lampier HS/Springfield, Ill.)

He started the final 14 games last season as an undersized center, but delivered some awfully big performances.

No. 1 on that list had to be his baseline jumper on the Illini's last possession that brought the team a victory at Michigan. He might need to shoot the ball more often. He has taken 10 shots or more just six times in 97 games.

Chukwudebe averaged 11.1 ppg and shot .655 in Australia. If he's even close to double-digits this season, Illinois will be thrilled with a player who contributes more than his share on defense.

The Nigerian native should help at power forward and center and is not concerned about starring at either. Remember it's his shirt, not his game, that says he's a double-zero.

(6-3, 197 lbs., SO, PG, #30, 24.0 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 6.0 apg, Manual HS/Peoria, Ill.)

Illinois' "Mr. Basketball" in 1998 is already "Mr. Champaign," and he hasn't taken a collegiate shot yet. He sat out last season, but practiced with the team and is ready to take charge.

Eventually, he and Bradford should form the Big Ten's best backcourt and possibly the best in the country. This season, they might experience a few growing pains. But they should inflict their share of misery, too.

The former McDonald's All-America has the size and strength to hold his own against any point guard in the conference. Once his knowledge matches his skills, watch out for a player who averaged 14.4 ppg and 3.0 apg on the Australian tour.

If Williams fulfills all of his academic responsibilities, he could regain a fourth season of eligibility. But no one expects him to be around that long.

(6-9, 230 lbs., JR, C, #52, 20.8 ppg, 9.6 rpg, .640 FG, Lincoln College, Ill. & Manual HS/Peoria, Ill.)

Griffin might be more of a power forward, but he should add a shot-blocking presence right away.

So what if he doesn't have classic center dimensions? There aren't many Shaquille O'Neals in the college game. Griffin's athleticism will serve him just fine.

The 1997 McDonald's All-America wanted to join the Illini two years ago but had to begin his career in junior college as a non-qualifier. Last season, he was an NJCAA All-America and the JC ranks' Division II Player of the Year.

Griffin should immediately surface as one of the league's top inside talents, wherever Kruger positions him. After two years of chomping at the bit, it's hard to imagine him coming off the bench.

(6-4, 218 lbs., SR, F, #32, 9.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.4 apg, 2.4 tpg, 1.6 spg, 26.2 minutes, .382 FG, .313 3PT, .592 FT, Southern Union JC, Ala. & Russell City HS/Pittsview, Ala.)

As one of only two seniors on the roster, Brown could play an important role on the court and off.

He started 29 games last season and was Illinois' second-leading scorer. But Brown's accuracy from the field and the line left much to be desired and dropped him a notch or two on the depth chart, another sign of the program's improvement.

Brown averaged 20 points per game as a sophomore at Southern Union JC after missing an entire season with a hip injury. If he shows that determination again, battling back from an off-season foot injury, he can again make a key contribution.

(6-7, 217 lbs., SO, F, #22, 4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 1.4 apg, 1.9 tpg, 0.4 spg, 19.8 minutes, .327 FG, .300 3PT, .767 FT, Maine West HS/Des Plaines, Ill.)

Don't be surprised if Johnson plays more than McClain or even starts his share of games, contributing everywhere from shooting guard to power forward.

His versatility makes him invaluable to a Kruger-coached team. And when Johnson averaged 12.5 ppg in four Big Ten Tournament games, it was more than four times his production to that point.

In a state quarterfinal game for Maine West HS in 1998, he helped his team to victory after a head injury required 13 stitches. Johnson must have thought he was a hockey player. But he plays with just that type of scrappiness.

(6-8, 216 lbs., SO, F, #33, 4.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.0 apg, 1.7 tpg, 0.6 spg, 19.0 minutes, .479 FG, .642 FT, Boylan HS/Rockford, Ill.)

If anyone listed in this section deserves to be considered a regular, it's probably Krupalija, who had 12 starting assignments last season not bad for someone who was planning to redshirt.

He was particularly strong against Indiana, averaging 12.7 rpg in three games and grabbing 16 at Bloomington in the Big Ten opener. He also ripped the Hoosiers for 19 points in the final regular-season game.

Krupalija shot .674 from the field and averaged 10.9 ppg and a team-high 8.6 rpg in Australia. If someone has to surrender some minutes with the influx of new talent, chances are it won't be him.

(6-10, 222 lbs., SO, F, #21, 3.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.8 apg, 0.4 tpg, 0.5 spg, 14.3 minutes, .390 FG, .689 FT, Lafayette HS/Ballwin, Mo.)

The future is bright for the native of Paisley, Scotland, who added 10 pounds of muscle in the weight room and gained considerable confidence in the off-season.

Archibald's improved shooting was evident in Australia, where he averaged 11.7 ppg and shot .571 from the field and a team-high .820 at the foul line. From there, he represented Great Britain in the World University Games and averaged 13.7 ppg and 5.3 rpg at that event in Spain.

Expect Archibald to find a niche in a crowded frontcourt group. A player who has only been in this country for two years can get a lot better.

(6-10, 220 lbs., FR, F, #34, 21.7 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 3.2 bpg, Lincoln HS/Lincoln, Ill.)

Last season's Illinois "Mr. Basketball" has often been compared to Danny Manning. If he's half that good, he should have an immediate effect on everyone.

Cook can grab a rebound, handle the ball and deliver at the opposite end. The McDonald's All-America gives Kruger one more talented option this season and a core player for future construction.

Already, the talk among Illini faithful is that Cook won't be around four seasons. If he does what some people think he can, he will have already done more than enough.

(5-10, 160 lbs., JR, G, #5, 2.1 ppg, 0.5 rpg, 1.1 apg, .455 FG, .407 3PT, .667 FT, 9.9 minutes, Central HS/Champaign, Ill.)

Everyone laughed when Illinois had to start a puny walk-on against Mateen Cleaves and Michigan State. But Mast acquitted himself well that night in a game the Illini deserved to win.

With all the new faces on campus, he will probably see even less action and contribute mostly as a practice player. But there are worse guys to have around.

(6-3, 185 lbs., FR, G, #24, 24.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 6.1 apg, Elgin HS/Elgin, Ill.)

He has been described as a Ryan Robertson type, for those familiar with Kansas basketball. Harrington is a coach's son and plays that way. If you look up the phrase "gym rat" in a dictionary, his picture is nearby.

The Illini staff zeroed in on Harrington when Jerrance Howard's qualifications came into question. But there is zero question about his work ethic or ability to make free throws.

(6-1, 205 lbs., JR, G, #12, 3.6 ppg, 1.3 rpg, 0.3 apg, 7.8 minutes in 1997-98, Florida International & Carbondale HS/Carbondale, Ill.)

Kruger had great success with Dan Cross as his point guard at Florida in a Final Four campaign. So it's no surprise Illinois would welcome Cross's brother as a walk-on transfer.

Joe is a streak shooter who averaged 7.6 ppg in 1996-97 before his playing time dipped as a sophomore. Another brother, Joshua, plays at Southern Illinois.

(6-1, 175 lbs., FR, G, #25, 10.0 ppg, 4 rpg, 7.8 apg, Peoria HS/Peoria, Ill.)

Howard was a non-qualifier at press time. His ACT score was being questioned by the NCAA. He planned to try again this fall on the national testing dates, in hopes of becoming eligible after the first semester.

In the meantime, he enrolled at Illinois as a part-time student, a less-expensive proposition that wouldn't start his five-year eligibility clock. His game might take a year to develop anyway, although he is an accomplished playmaker.


(6-10, C, 6.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 0.6 apg, 1.3 tpg, 1.1 bpg, 18.9 minutes, .470 FG, .618 FT)

It was time for Hawkins to Fess up. He didn't fit in Kruger's program and was finally dismissed. Instead of buying a watch or a calendar, he missed appointments with everyone but his favorite restaurants.

It didn't help that he was at least 10 pounds overweight and lifted his fork more often than anything else. Doomed to be about the 13th man on the team, Hawkins transferred to Division II Augusta (Ga.) State, where he should be eligible to play immediately.

(6-8, F, 3.9 ppg, 1.8 rpg, 0.8 apg, 14.0 minutes, 11 appearances)

Beyers thought he deserved a better chance than he had, transferring in December to Illinois State where he can play this winter. Observers say he made a wise decision.

(6-2, G, 3.3 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 0.4 apg, 0.6 tpg, 0.4 spg, 10.6 minutes, .309 FG, .281 3PT, .750 FT)

With his eligibility up, Davis will take his streaky three-point shooting tendencies elsewhere probably to the nearest pickup game. He didn't appear in the Big Ten Tournament. And no one noticed.

(6-6, F, 1.0 ppg, 1.0 rpg, 0.5 apg, two appearances)

Ammons is shooting for the NCAA record for transfers. He moved from Northwestern to Illinois and is now at Maine, having proven he couldn't play for either Kevin O'Neill or Kruger, whose coaching styles couldn't be more different. He should be eligible at mid-year.

Experience? What happens when Illinois' newcomers travel to East Lansing or Columbus? But if any team gets a split at those stops, it should smile. And the Illini don't have to visit Purdue or Indiana.

Maturity? Williams is still a first-year player, despite local nominations for the Basketball Hall of Fame. Griffin and Cook will have adjustments, too. The question isn't "how good" as much as it is "when."

Playing time? Illinois has a lot of players with aspirations. That's good if a coach can channel their efforts. But someone, and maybe more than just one, is bound to be unhappy. The trick is to keep that feeling from spreading.

Coaching! Kruger is one of the top three coaches in the league and teaches the game, not just specific responses. His demeanor should be a key for a team that will need composure beyond its years.

Australia! A 7-0 record Down Under in May was the perfect experience for a team with a new point guard. The 10 extra practices helped Williams as much as the games did.

Peoria! The Illini's unofficial branch campus puts out as many prospects per capita as any community in the country. If this team does as well as it should, that pipeline will continue to flow.

The 19th edition of Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook is on sale now. To order, call 800-828-HOOP (4667), or visit their web site at http://www.collegebaskets.com

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