2 Illinois The return to form of a forgotten star could make for an award-winning season

November 19, 2001

For Illini senior guard Cory Bradford, last season was one huge
disappointment. It started off well enough when he was voted the
preseason player of the year in the Big Ten, but over the summer
he had suffered a deep bone bruise in his left knee while playing
for the USA Select Team that trained against the Olympic team,
and he was never the same player after that. With his
explosiveness gone, he became little more than a stand-still
shooter. "There were times when I couldn't jump over a piece of
paper," says Bradford. "Teams would take away my three-point shot
and figure, What else does he have?"

He was able to extend his streak of consecutive games with at
least one made three-pointer to an NCAA-record 88 (the string
ended on Feb. 13), but his scoring average dropped from 15.3 in
his sophomore season to 9.9. Now, however, after swearing off
basketball for more than two months to allow his knee to heal,
Bradford says he feels "like a newborn kid again." That sense of
optimism is surging at Illinois, which has three starters
returning from last season's Elite Eight team, including 6'3"
junior point guard Frank Williams, who ended up winning the Big
Ten player of the year award that was predicted for Bradford.

Two years ago Williams was a talented but inconsistent freshman
with a reputation for being moody, but he has blossomed as a
player and as a person. He led the Illini in scoring (14.9 points
a game), assists (4.4) and steals (2.0) last season, and beyond
that, says Illini coach Bill Self, "I think he really enjoys
being a college student." After Illinois lost to Arizona in the
Midwest Regional final last March, Self canvassed NBA scouts and
general managers and told Williams that he would be, at worst, a
late first-round pick in the draft, but Williams never wavered in
his decision to stay in school. "It wasn't the coach talking him
into staying, I promise you that," Self says. "Of course, the
coach wasn't talking him into leaving, either."

The Illini's ability to improve upon that Elite Eight finish this
year will hinge in large part on whether they can again play with
the defensive toughness that was their trademark last season.
That would have been hard enough without Marcus Griffin and
Sergio McClain, last year's senior leaders, but it will become
even more difficult without 6'8" senior forward Lucas Johnson--he
of the shiny pate and sharp elbows--who suffered a torn ACL in his
right knee last month and is out until at least February. There's
still a lot of experience on hand, however, with 6'11" senior
center Robert Archibald and 6'9" senior forward Damir Krupalija,
and the addition of 6'3" small forward Blandon Ferguson, a junior
college transfer. What Illinois needs most, however, is more
production from 6'10" junior power forward Brian Cook, who last
season blended stunning performances (23 and 22 first-half points
against Missouri and Penn State, respectively) with maddening
inconsistency (two points in the second half against Missouri and
zero against Penn State). Self especially hopes Cook will mix it
up more inside: He shot just 37 free throws in 16 Big Ten games.

"We were really pleased with what we did last year," Bradford
says, "but we definitely feel we can do better."

--Seth Davis

COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Some thought Williams would bolt for the NBA after being named Big Ten player of the year, but he stuck to his decision to stay another season.

REPORT CARD

GRADUATION RATE: 46%
AVERAGE NUMBER OF WINS: 19.4
NCAA TOURNAMENT RECORD: 7-7
TRANSFERS: 9
McDONALD'S ALL-AMERICANS : 4
PLAYERS IN NBA: 2

COMMENT: Program began 1990s on NCAA probation with reduced
scholarships for transgressions committed during recruitment of
Deon Thomas. Things have gotten better since coach Lou Henson
retired in '96. The Illini have been clean under Lon Kruger and
his successor, Bill Self.

GRADE: B

STARTING LINEUP

POS. PLAYER HT. CL. KEY STAT

SF Blandon Ferguson 6'3" Jr. 14.4 ppg*
PF Brian Cook[#] 6'10" Jr. 6.1 rpg
C Robert Archibald 6'11" Sr. 58.8 FG%
SG Cory Bradford[#] 6'3" Sr. 9.9 ppg
PG Frank Williams[#] 6'3" Jr. 14.9 ppg

2000-01 record: 27-8
Final rank (coaches' poll): No. 6
[#]Returning starter
*As junior college sophomore

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)