Growing up as the oldest of six children, first-year Illinois
coach Lon Kruger knows what it's like to have five people look
to him to make decisions. Leadership and authority, two traits
Kruger has found invaluable, are qualities he also sees in his
starting point guard, Kiwane Garris.
Last season Garris established himself as one of the best
players in the Big Ten. Despite missing six games with shoulder
and ankle injuries, the 6'2" floor leader led the Illini in
scoring for the second straight season and was a first-team
All-Big Ten selection. "As a former point guard, I place a great
deal of significance on that position," says Kruger. "I want a
player who is tough and who can be a coach on the floor."
Kruger knows a skilled playmaker when he sees one; as a star
point guard at Kansas State, he led the Wildcats to Big Eight
titles in 1972 and '73 and was twice named the conference's
player of the year. In taking over the struggling Illini
program, Kruger has needed to rely on unwavering confidence, one
more asset he displayed on the floor at Kansas State. The
Illini, a lowly ninth in the Big Ten last season, have won just
one NCAA tournament game in the '90s and haven't had a 20-win
season since 1990-91.
At 44, Kruger already has 14 years of head coaching experience
under his belt. His teams have made the postseason in eight of
the last 10 seasons, with six trips to the NCAAs. He also has a
reputation for turning programs around. In 1990, Kruger was
hired at Florida; in just four years the Gators went from a 7-21
finish to a school-record 29 wins and a Final Four appearance.
Despite Kruger's credentials, the Illini players made no attempt
to hide their disappointment that assistant coach Jimmy Collins
was passed over for the job. To make the transition smoother,
Kruger has emphasized communication, another skill he honed
during his playing days. The players and coaches regularly have
informal meetings at which they voice their questions and
concerns. "We get to say what we want to do as a team and talk
about the goals we want to accomplish," says Garris. "The
coaches know how hard it's been for us to take in the fact that
we have a new coach."
Though Kruger may be an unfamiliar face in Assembly Hall, the
Illini have five players with starting experience returning.
Senior Jerry Hester joins Garris in the backcourt to make
Illinois a top three-point threat in the Big Ten. Forwards
Bryant Notree and Jerry Gee man the frontcourt. Center Chris
Gandy came on strong down the stretch last year, but at 6'9"
he'll have to work hard against the Big Ten's big big men. "We
don't have a 7-footer," says Kruger, "but the quickness of our
players makes it tough for big guys to match up. You give up
something on one end and make up for it on the other."
Juco transfer Halim Abdullah will spell Garris at the point. But
Garris, Kruger knows, is the key to success. If Garris is freed
up to show off his shot yet keeps a firm hold on the offense,
Kruger could end the season as the toast of Champaign.
THE DATA BOX
Coach: Lon Kruger
Career record: 237-185 (14 seasons)
Record at Illinois: first season
1995-96 record: 18-13 (final ranking: none)
Big Ten record: 7-11 (ninth)
PG *Kiwane Garris, 6'2", Sr.
Led Illini in scoring and steals
SG *Jerry Hester, 6'6", Sr.
Nailed a team-high 39% of three-pointers
SF *Bryant Notree, 6'5", Jr.
Shooting average went up 46% from '94-95
PF *Jerry Gee, 6'8", Jr.
A physical force, led Illini with 33 blocks
C *Chris Gandy, 6'9", Sr.
True forward must improve inside game
Nov. 22 vs. Illinois-Chicago
Ex-Illini assistant Jimmy Collins returns to Champaign
Dec. 21 vs. UCLA
First meeting since Bruins' 71-64 win in '72
Jan. 9 at Michigan
Series record: 65 wins, 65 losses
Jan. 11 vs. Penn State
Garris and Pete Lisicky should shoot it out
Feb. 2 at Indiana
Illinois has lost six straight in Bloomington
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID STLUKACOVER [Varies by region] High Hopes Kiwane Garris has the Illini in reach of a Big Ten title
COLOR PHOTO: MARK COWAN Garris handles the point with poise.[Kiwane Garris in game]