Illinois boasts a roster full of no-names, and its 1-7 record in the Big Ten indicates a monumental rebuilding effort lies ahead.
But make no mistake, Illinois is a team the Gophers men’s basketball squad won’t take lightly.
When the Illini visit Minnesota (13-5, 4-4) tonight, they will be a far cry from the 20-win teams that used to battle the Gophers for NCAA tournament position. All five of the team’s starters departed after last season, leaving Illinois coach Lon Kruger to replenish the roster with unproven talent.
“Their names aren’t as familiar as they’ve been in the past,” said Gophers assistant coach Bill Brown. “But this is a team that is improving with every game.”
Among the standouts is redshirt freshman guard Cory Bradford, who leads the team in scoring (14.6 points per game) and is one of the top three-point shooters in the conference. The 6-foot-2 Bradford has converted 48 of 117 shots from beyond the arc, and has made a three-point field goal in every game this season.
“He’s strong, tough and mature for a man 20 years of age,” Gophers coach Clem Haskins said. “He’s a very, very good basketball player.”
If anyone could foresee the struggles of Illini basketball this year, it was Kruger, who compiled a 45-21 record over the past two seasons. With his leading scorer (Kevin Turner) and leading rebounders (Jerry Hester and Brian Johnson) gone, Kruger had to essentially start from scratch.
“It’s going to be a tough season for both our team and our fans,” he said at the Big Ten Media Day last October. “But I know we’ve got some talent to work with and some hope to build on.”
What Kruger has done to adapt to his team’s strengths has been to emphasize a scrappy attitude, similar to the one that Wisconsin’s Dick Bennett teaches. Illinois leads the Big Ten in steals (9 per game) and is one of the best teams in the conference in limiting opponents’ field-goal success.
“They do a great job of knocking the ball loose,” Haskins said. “They play much bigger than their size. We don’t play that big, so I think it will be pretty even (on the boards).”
While the Illini emphasize team rebounding and balance on offense, the Gophers have struggled to follow the same philosophy. The team hasn’t provided consistent offensive support to forward Quincy Lewis, and Haskins is looking for help from his bench.
“We’ve got to get scoring off the bench,” Haskins said. “We’ve got to find a way to get Mitch Ohnstad more involved in the offense.”
Any contribution Haskins gets from his bench would be appreciated. Lewis accounted for nearly 60 percent of the offense, scoring 28 of the team’s 50 points against the Badgers.
“We want to have balanced scoring,” Haskins said. “Those things will come in due time. Right now, we’ve got to concentrate on getting our guys some good looks at the basketball.”