Illini Bracket - 8 vs. 9

Mar 17, 2020

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This is going to take forever. The whole idea here is a deep-dive post on every team so that the guy who sent me this can read about the 1987 Illini which I lived but he didn't (too young), but I realized yesterday that one post per day was going to stretch this out over two weeks. So I think I'm going to go two posts per day. One at 7:00 am, one at 7:00 pm, both of the polls set to expire after 12 hours. We'll start the Elite Eight on Friday evening and be finished by Monday.

And yes, I still intend to write deep-dive posts on the Elite Eight and Final Four. There's a lot of Illini info in my brain, and this is a good way to get it out. I mean, what else am I going to do?

Today's matchup is a good one. Perhaps the best matchup of this first (Sweet 16) round: 1998 vs. 2020.

(8) 1997-98 Illini

Record: 23-10
Tournament seed: 5
Tournament result: lost 67-61 to 4-seed Maryland in the second round

Five senior starters. That's the main thing I think about with the 1998 team. I'll walk you through how we got to five senior starters.

It wasn't some "huge recruiting class in the fall of 1994 and by the time the spring of 1998 rolled around..." kind of thing. The five senior starters did include three players from the 1994 class but also a kid who walked on in 1993 and a 1993 recruit who had redshirted. And even the three guys from the 1994 class had crazy paths to get there. I'll just go starter-by-starter:

I always think of Matt Heldman as the point guard on that 1998 team, but he was more or less a shooting guard up until that season as he waited for the lead guard spot to be vacated by Kiwane Garris. 1998 was a very "everything just fell into place" team, and Heldman taking over the point guard role as a senior, which allowed Kevin Turner to flourish as the scoring guard, was a big piece the fell into place.

But Heldman could shoot it. .405 from three for his career. You could impress your friends at some Illini trivia night by knowing that Matt Heldman was a much better three point shooter than Kevin Turner. Everyone always thinks of Heldman the distributor because of that senior season.

Tragically, after he graduated, Heldman was killed in a car accident in 1999. It's an awful story - Matt was a passenger in his dad's Corvette and his dad was allegedly racing another car when he lost control and hit a minivan. Matt, his father, and both occupants of the minivan were killed. Illinois established the Matto Award (hustle plays) in his honor. Last year's winner? Andres Feliz.

Kevin Turner was one of the least likely stars in Illini history. He was more or less a last-minute recruit added to that 1994 class where he joined his superstar high school teammate Bryant Notree in Champaign. Notree ended up transferring to UIC, and Turner ended up being a first-team All Big Ten guard in Champaign. I recently covered Turner in this Alan Griffin post.

Jerry Hester was the third senior starter. He wasn't even supposed to be there that season (he would have graduated with Kiwane after 1997), but he injured his back before his senior season and took a redshirt while sitting out. Lon Kruger was lucky to have Jerry Hester on that 1998 team (we don't win the Big Ten title without him), but I'll always wonder how far the 1997 team could have gone in the Tournament if Hester had been healthy and playing.

Kevin Turner wasn't even the most unlikely starter on that team - it was Brian Johnson. Lucas' older brother arrived as a walkon and eventually found his way into a scholarship (and a starting spot).

I've always been a "project future rosters" kind of guy, and if you asked me in the fall of 1994 to predict the starters in the spring of 1998 there's no way I would have predicted Turner and Johnson. That would be like predicting a future frontcourt of Jermaine Hamlin (late throw-in recruit) and Zach Griffith (walkon). Turner and Johnson were two players who came out of nowhere. Johnson simply came to Illinois because he wanted to study engineering and the small schools who had offered him basketball scholarships didn't have engineering programs. He did enough during his sophomore year (Lou Henson's final season) to earn a scholarship, and then, once Lon Kruger arrived, Johnson began playing a lot, eventually earning that 1998 starting spot.

The fifth senior starter was the highest-ranked recruit of the bunch: Jarrod Gee. He started out going by Jerry Gee, but - and I can't verify this with any research but it's what I remember at the time - with Jerry Hester going by Jerry, Gee wanted to go by his birth name of Jarrod. So at some point during his career (after his sophomore year I think?) we stopped calling him Jerry and started calling him Jarrod.

Gee was Mr. Basketball in Illinois and had picked Illinois over an offer from Duke, so he was the highest ranked recruit on the team once Kiwane left. He was an old school big who liked to throw his body around in the lane and hit soft 10-foot jumpers from the baseline. He was short for a Big Ten big, but he made up for it with some muscle.

That team also had the perfect sixth man: freshman Sergio McClain. Marcus Griffin hadn't qualified and headed of to junior college, so Sergio was the only one of the two big recruits to make it to campus in 1998. He was the perfect sixth-man that season - the exciting freshman with the incredible basketball IQ.

My favorite memory from 1998 was the game at Indiana. This is famous in Hoosier lore because Ted Valentine gave Bobby Knight not one, not two, but three technicals. His second technical was given for walking out on the court to check out an injured player (I would have been furious if I was an Indiana fan), and then the third technical came when Bobby Knight melted down before leaving the court.

But the best part of that game is that Indiana fans FOR YEARS would point to that game as the game that Ted Valentine "robbed" them of a win. (I'm getting so excited just typing this out.) But that's now how the game went. Yes, Illinois got free throws for those technicals. But it wasn't some close game where those free throws were the difference. It was an "every time Indiana tried to make a run, Jerry Hester slammed the door" game. Illinois pushing the lead to 8-10-12 as Indiana tried and tried and tried to get back in it remains one of my favorite memories. Illinois won 82-72, on the road, at Indiana, to lock up a share of the Big Ten title. It's really hard to remember a more satisfying regular season Big Ten win.

Ask any Indiana fan and they'll swear the game was tied at the time. It wasn't. Illinois was up 8, hit three free throws to move to an 11 point lead, and remained completely in control. Bobby Knight says that the "greatest travesty" in the history of officiating is a technical when his team was down 8 with nine minutes to go in a game they lost by 10. LOLOL.

(9) 2019-20 Illini

Record: 21-10
Tournament seed: unknown (my guess: a 6-seed)
Tournament result: n/a

I don't think I need to write anything here, do I? This is why I went so deep on the 1998 team. What can I say here? "See, kids, the 2020 team had this guy named Ayo who hit a bunch of big shots..."

I guess I can talk about the matchups? Thinking back through both teams, I really do think this game comes down to one team with the ball and a chance to win. If it's 2020, Ayo is taking the shot (duh). First team All Big Ten. If it's 1998, Kevin Turner is taking the shot (duh). First team All Big Ten.

Trent guarding Turner is interesting. So is Da'Monte guarding Jerry Hester (Peoria pipeline!). The entire 1998 roster would really struggle to guard Kofi (Gee was great but undersized), but I feel like Heldman, Turner, and Hester would hit three after three after three on this 2020 team. And a loose ball on the floor with Matt Heldman and Andres Feliz going after it? The world implodes, right?

Man, this is such a good matchup. The team that tied for a Big Ten title vs. the team that finished one game back. Sergio energy off the bench vs. Alan Griffin energy off the bench. Kruger vs. Underwood.

I hope this vote goes down to the final five seconds. Because I think the game would.

(Link to the poll is here.)


Wheaton Iceman on March 17, 2020 @ 10:06 AM

Great work as always. One more tidbit on Brian Johnson, which you may already know but didn’t include so I figured I’d throw it out there. Brian was actually a redshirt senior in 97-98. If memory serves he first walked on for the 93-94 season. I remember hearing at the time that there was this walk-on who really surprised with his potential so they decided to redshirt him and let him practice all year with the team. Good decision or the 98 B1G title probably doesn’t happen. Loved that team and was really bummed at the loss to Maryland. Was on St Pats day I believe, so exactly 22 years ago today. Keep up the good work.

Efremwinters84 on March 17, 2020 @ 12:49 PM

I have a twitter account, and I voted for the 1 vs. 16 game. However, still hoping you can provide a link in each write-up to facilitate the voting process. Thanks Robert!

Robert on March 17, 2020 @ 12:55 PM

Good call. I'll add the link above. It's also here:


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