Chicago Illinois' Fighting Illini didn't stand a fighting chance last season when the NCAA ruled point guard Frank Williams a partial men's basketball qualifier.
Williams, a 6-3, 197-pound McDonald's All American from Peoria's Manual High, practiced for Illinois, but did not play in games in accordance with NCAA rules.
Coach Lon Kruger was forced to scramble without Williams, moving shooting guard Cory Bradford to the point. Though Bradford averaged 15.4 points per game, he also committed 78 turnovers against 62 assists during the Illini's 14-18 season.
He had three of the Illini's 27 turnovers in a 65-55 loss to Kansas last year at Kansas City's Kemper Arena.
Now Williams is fully qualified and has helped the No. 20-ranked Illini win five of seven games entering today's 11:05 a.m. rematch with No. 8 Kansas at the United Center.
"It's hard to describe how much he helps us," sophomore forward Lucas Johnson said. "He's out there now playing the true point guard role."
Williams -- he averages 13.4 points a game -- scored a career-high 20 points with six rebounds, four assists and two steals in the Illini's last outing -- an 81-48 victory over Kansas State last Saturday in Champaign, Ill. He led an offensive machine that turned it over just seven times against the Wildcats.
"Frank is playing better and better," Kruger said. "His decisions are better. He finishes plays better and I think generally he feels better about what he's doing."
The KSU game was Williams' finest.
"He's a great penetrator," K-State's Tony Kitt said. "He'd penetrate and you'd get help and the next thing you knew your man had the ball."
Williams has shown some flashiness, throwing the ball behind his back and over his head, ala Magic Johnson.
"I think Frank played exceptionally well against Kansas State," Kruger said. "I don't care if they are flashy plays as long as they are plays that are finished. Sometimes the plays he makes, behind the back or over the head are plays he needs to make. He has to respect the fact in the Big 10 baskets are hard to come by. We don't want to cross that line. To this point, Frank has done a good job of that."
Williams is the squad's second-leading scorer. Bradford, a 6-3 soph, averages 15.0 points. He's hit 22 of 56 threes. A year ago against Kansas, Bradford scored 26 points on 10-of-22 shooting. He hit six of seven threes against the Jayhawks.
Marcus Griffin, a 6-9 junior pivot, averages 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds for the Illini, whose only losses have come to powerful Duke and Maryland.
McDonald's Revisited: KU sophomore guard Jeff Boschee played against Illinois' Williams in the McDonald's All-Star game. "Frankie is quick, almost sly. Sometimes he forced shots. He's definitely a good player and Illinois will be a great test for us," Boschee said.
Peoria Connection: Williams was a teammate of Illini juniors Griffin and Sergio McClain in high school. They led Peoria Manual to three straight state titles.
McClain, a 6-4 guard/forward who also played some point last year, is averaging 5.6 and 3.2 rebounds while logging 17.4 minutes a game. He's been slowed by a pair of gimpy knees.
"I'm still sore," McClain said recently. "I'm able to run, but it's a delicate situation. I get a lot of treatment and have been playing through it, but it's gotten worse."
Like KU's Lester Earl, who has a bad left knee, McClain sometimes needs a couple days off. It fueled rumors McClain might leave Illinois.
"I waited all this time for these guys to get here. Why would I leave?" he said, referring to Williams and Griffin.
Kruger Loves Midwest: Illinois coach Kruger, 47, is in his fourth season in Champaign, Ill., his 10th season since leaving alma mater Kansas State to coach at Florida.
He's been asked to compare Illinois to KSU.
"There are so many reminders," he said. "Both are Midwestern schools. There are some agricultural relationships as well as outstanding business and engineering. Being back in the Midwest was really comforting for us. As much as we enjoyed Florida and the people there, we really like coming back to the Midwest."
Kruger is currently on a nostalgia trip. On Dec. 8, he faced Texas-Pan American, the school where he started as a head coach. The Illini won, 91-68. Then on the 11th, he led the Illini to victory over his alma mater, Kansas State. The next two games pit the Illini against familiar foes for Kruger, Kansas and Missouri. He has both played and coached against those two teams a total of 62 times. As a player, he was 4-2 against Kansas and 5-3 against Missouri.
Passing the Test: KU coach Roy Williams was especially pleased with his team's intensity on Thursday in an 80-67 win over Ohio State.
"Eight players had final exams today," Williams revealed after the game. "To come in and be as focused as we were ... it's impressive. Some were as late as 3 this afternoon."
TIght rims?: Some players in the past have said the United Center has "tight rims." Tight rims generally favor the defense, not giving the offensive player much room for error on jumpers. Bulls phenom Michael Jordan has been quoted as saying he liked playing in the old Chicago Stadium better than the new Bulls/Chicago Blackhawks facility.
"If Michael says it's difficult to shoot in there I'd agree," KU's Williams said. "Really I've not noticed it much. At the Shootaround and warmup drills, you get used to the background and things like that. Michigan State didn't seem to have problems with it (in 12-point win over KU two weeks ago). It's the same for both teams."
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