Illini fall fast to bottom of Big Ten

Michael Dougherty

Feel sorry for Lon Kruger.
The Illinois men’s basketball coach has watched his team go from Big Ten co-champs with a 23-10 record last year, to a 9-13 record and the conference also-ran.
The No. 19 Gophers (14-5, 5-4 in the Big Ten) beat Illinois 75-63 at Williams Arena Wednesday night in a game that was much more lopsided than the final score indicated.
Illinois (1-9 in the Big Ten) hung with Minnesota for the first 14 minutes of the game, and with 5:33 remaining the score was tied at 27-27.
The Gophers used the rest of the first half and the first seven minutes of the second half to go on a 27-5 run and remind the Illinois that it indeed belong at the bottom of the standings. At one point Minnesota led 70-43.
Kruger said it’s hard to drudge through the current quagmire, especially after having the taste of title success last season.
“During years like this you just have to keep them up emotionally,” Kruger said. “You have to build a base or foundation for the future.”
Kruger has a history of coaching success, having guided his alma matter, Kansas State, to the NCAA tournament all four of his years as coach. Kruger then went to Florida, where he led the Gators to two tournaments in six years, including a trip to the Final Four in 1994.
Kruger took over the reins for Illinois in 1996 and in two years had a 45-20 record with two tourney trips. However, the Illini are now fighting to keep Kruger from suffering his worst coaching season since his first year at Pan American University in 1983 when his team went 7-21.
“It’s not any fun in terms of losing, that’s for sure,” Kruger said after the team’s ninth loss in its last 10 games. “It’s just not easy, and it’s not fun for the guys either.”
There is some light at the end of the Illini tunnel, however, in freshman Cory Bradford and junior Cleotis Brown.
Bradford scored 12 first-half points, but was held to just two after intermission. He has a 14.6 points-per-game average and joins Gophers center Joel Przybilla as a leading contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year.
Brown (10.9 ppg), meanwhile, is the only other Illini player who averages in double figures. He scored 12 points and is one of the players who said he is having a hard time adjusting to losing.
“We have to keep telling ourselves to keep our heads up and encourage each other,” Brown said. “The only thing that’s hard is continuing to lose.”
Gophers coach Clem Haskins said he was happy with the way his team played, but was upset with the play of his bench down the stretch.
“The last four or five minutes were a little ragged,” Haskins said. “As a coach you worry about those last four or five minutes.”
But Haskins’ perspective was tested when he was asked by an Illinois reporter if he’d rather be in the position to have to worry about the last five minutes, or be in Kruger’s shoes and have to mull over the first 35.
Out of respect for Kruger, Haskins went right past the reporter’s question and on to a discussion about his own team, probably because Haskins has been there before.
Kruger, meanwhile, said he is realistic in an assessment of his team’s current capabilities. He also admitted the score wasn’t indicative of the way the game went.
“Whether we lose by 12 or 22, that’s not what’s significant,” he said. “We’ve got to play extremely well to hang with a top 20 team at their place, and we didn’t.”