"GET IT RIGHT NEXT TIME"
THE FIGHTING ILLINI
November 20, 1985
Illinois coach Lou Henson likes to illustrate his conversations. On a piece of paper he numbers the points he's trying to make and draws arrows in search of a logical conclusion. Ask what went wrong with the Illini last season and he produces a sheet full of hieroglyphics, meaning, he says, "Well, we just didn't shoot very well."
Bingo. Two seasons ago, Illinois led the Big Ten in scoring. In '84-85, a supposedly new and improved attack out-scored only Northwestern over the Big Ten season. One of the top offenders in the bottomed-out offense was Efrem Winters. An all-conference power forward as a sophomore, Winters sprained an ankle before last season and ballooned to 255 pounds. "Coming in overweight and out of condition really set me back," he says. "That can really bring your spirits down." It can also bring your average down. His went from 14.7 points per game to 10. Another culprit was guard Bruce Douglas. He had been conference co-Player of the Year in '84, but when the coaches chose their All-Big Ten squad last year, Douglas failed to place on the first, second or third team. His average fell from 12.9 to 7.9 and, worse, his field-goal accuracy plunged from 47% to a dreadful 38.4%.
"It's the first time, dating back to high school, that I've seen Bruce lack confidence," says guard Doug Altenberger. "He was desperate. It's tough on him because when he has a bad game it's more obvious than when I do." It was obvious in the season-ending NCAA loss to Georgia Tech; Douglas had nine turnovers.
But there's hunger for redemption in Champaign. "A couple of years ago we would have been satisfied with the season we had, but not anymore," says Douglas. It should be pointed out that even in an off year, Douglas was still one of the better guards in the country. He led the Big Ten in steals for the second straight season and was just two assists shy of leading the conference for the third consecutive time. And Douglas is confident his touch will return. "I took 300 to 350 shots a day, besides all the games I played this summer," he says. "I think I'll be a force again."
Brute force is still the Illini game. The slimmed-down Winters "is playing like a young animal again," says Douglas. "This is the best I've ever seen him in the preseason." Even though center George Montgomery has departed, he had missed the last 11 games of the season with a broken bone in his foot and was adequately replaced by Ken Norman and Scott Meents. In fact, Norman got a chance to start late in the season and led the team in scoring and rebounding over the final six games.
Now, with leading scorer Anthony Welch and team MVP Altenberger on hand, all the main ingredients are back from a team that was second in the nation in defense, behind Georgetown. But because their depth does not extend to every position, the Illini must avoid injuries. The player they can least afford to lose is Altenberger. A bad back limited his effectiveness last season, and this fall he had arthroscopic knee surgery two weeks before practice opened. Altenberger swears he'll be ready to play, and he had better be; he's still about the only deep threat Illinois has.
Illinois has a tough road schedule, including Georgia Tech, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Still, the Illini should continue to be tough to beat at home, where they have been 29-1 over the last two seasons. All they have to do is remember to put the ball in the basket.