IlliniBoard Summer Series Issue 11: Class of 1997

In the eleventh issue of the <i> Summer Series</i>, the series is taking a change in course. No longer will IlliniBoard be looking ahead, we will be looking back at past recruiting classes and their effect on the Illinois Basketball program. This issue will start by looking at Lon Kruger's first real recruiting class at Illinois, the <b><i>Class of 1997</i></b>. <br><br> Read more in this issue of the <b> Summer Series</b>.

The eleventh edition of the Summer Series will be a change in direction from the first ten editions. Instead of looking towards the 2004-2005 season, the Summer Series will now be taking a trip back in time, all the way back to the recruiting class of 1997.

In the portions on each player where gives a player an Recruit Ranking, I have made these rankings from zero to five stars. This ranking is defined as the amount of impact this player had on the University of Illinois program both on and off the court.

Carvell came to Illinois as a transfer from Northwestern, but his stay in Champaign as a University of Illinois basketball player was extremely short. Carvell was never on scholarship at Illinois due to Big Ten rules, and in his short career he rarely saw the court for Illinois. The most time Carvell got on the Assembly Hall court was when his third college team, the Maine Black Bears, visited Champaign. After sitting out the 1997-1998 Big Ten Championship season as a transfer, Carvell decided midway through the 1998-1999 season that he would see more playing time were he to transfer. Lon Kruger helped him find the University of Maine because of his relationship with the Black Bears head coach John Giannini.

Impact on the Team: Carvell brought nothing of substance to Illinois, and his time on the court was as much as your standard walk-on player. Him arriving and Illinois had the same effect on the basketball court, absolutely none. Recruit Ranking: Zero stars.

Rich Beyers was used as example A by many Illinois fans as to why Illinois should not recruit Class A High School superstars. Rich was a star for Shelbyville High School, and he was thought to be a player that could breakthrough the small school barrier and be an effective player on the high-major college level. Unfortunately for Rich, that was never the case. Rich was never able to break into the Illinois lineup in his one and a half year Fighting Illini career.

During his freshman season Rich was behind Jerry Gee, Brian Johnson, Victor Chukwudebe, and fellow freshman Awvee Storey in Illinois' big man rotation. Rich rarely saw time on the court in the 1997-1998 Big Ten Championship season. With the impending graduation of Gee and Johnson, and no big named recruits coming into the post for Illinois, Rich probably thought the playing time at Illinois was his for the 1998-1999 season.

In the 1998-1999 season, Lon Kruger worked to discover the best possible rotation among his big men, but Rich was on the outside looking in. When the Illini took on Kansas in Kansas City, Rich was named a starter. At the time, it was not known, but that would be his last game at Illinois as he decided to transfer from Illinois to find more playing time. Rich would eventually end up at Illinois State.

Impact on the Team: Rich really did not play much for Illinois in his year and a half. He would get the occasional minutes during his sophomore campaign as Kruger was trying to figure out which rotation would be the best for Illinois. Rich just did not fit in that rotation. Recruit Ranking: One star.

The list of accomplishment's Cory Bradford has in his Illinois career is extremely impressive. All you have to do is look in the college basketball record book to see the impact Cory Bradford had on Illinois. He hit a three-point shot in every game of his freshman and sophomore seasons, and most of his junior season giving him the longest streak of at least one three point shot made in a game with 88 consecutive games.

As a true freshman, Cory had to sit out as a partial qualifier. He was able to practice with the team, but he was not able to play in games. In practice Cory was always the person mimicking the opposing point guard and running Matt Heldman ragged. Cory ended up pretending to be players like Mateen Cleaves and AJ Guyton in practice, helping Illinois before he ever stepped on the court as a player in a real game.

In the 1998-1999 season Cory, as a freshman was handed the ball as Illinois' point guard because new recruit Frank Williams suffered the same fate Cory did his true freshman season, he was a partial qualifier. In his red shirt freshman season, Cory rotated between point guard and shooting guard, before he eventually ended the season as Illinois' point guard. The 1998-1999 season was extremely tough on Illinois, but especially Cory. Cory was never a point guard in high school, but he was forced to play that position throughout the year.

Cory's freshman season brought about a collection of the lowest lows to coincide with some very high highs. The lows included Illinois finishing Big Ten Conference play with a 3-13 record in last (eleventh) place. The highs included personal highs and team highs. The Big Ten media and Coaches named Cory the Big Ten Freshman of the Year before the start of the Big Ten Tournament. The Big Ten Tournament brought about the highest point for Illinois as a team that season. The eleventh ranked Fighting Illini defeated three ranked teams before running out of gas and falling to Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game. From that Big Ten Tournament, Cory Bradford still holds to record for the most three point shots made in a Big Ten Tournament.

The next season saw Frank Williams and Cory Bradford united in Illinois' backcourt, and with Illinois coming off the run to the Big Ten Tournament Championship Game, the expectations heaved upon the Fighting Illini were very high. Cory led the Illini in scoring for the season, and based on his performance over the past two seasons was named to the USA Select Team that scrimmaged against the USA Sydney Olympic Basketball team in Hawaii before the Olympics.

Heading into the 2000-2001 season Cory had two different things to deal with: a new head coach in Bill Self and being named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. The problems started early in the year for Cory. He had already suffered from knee problems, and his playing on the USA Select Team, while an honor, also lessened the amount of rest he could give his knee. Throughout this season, Cory labored on the court, fighting through a bad knee injury, and he never could live up to his billing as the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year. In Chicago in December, Cory tied the record for consecutive games with a made three point shot, but that streak would end later in the year in one of the most dramatic games of the season when Marcus Griffin defeated Wisconsin on a last second shot. When the streak ended, Illinois had won the game, and the only thing Cory said was he was happy the Illini won the game, because that meant more to him than his streak.

Cory's senior season was supposed to put a capper on a great five year career at Illinois with an Illinois run to the Final Four, but injuries caught up to the entire Fighting Illini team, including Cory. While he consistently fought through his knee injuries, he was just not the same player he was in his freshman and sophomore years. I believe a combination of excessive weight training and a knee injury caused Cory to lose mobility, and become a strictly one-dimensional player by the end of his career.

Impact on the Team: Cory was Illinois' best player for the first two years of his career, and in his final two years he took a back seat to his backcourt partner Frank Williams. Without Cory Bradford, Illinois probably would not have won three conference games in 1998, he was pretty much the whole offense for that young Illinois team. Recruit Ranking: Four stars

Arias Davis could do one thing on the court and one thing only: shoot three pointers. He was the sharp shooter off the bench on Illinois' 1998 Big Ten Championship team. Arias would come into the game and make a few three pointers and then be promptly put right back on the bench when Kevin Turner or Jerry Hester were ready to come back in the game.

In the 1998-1999 season, Arias did not see that much playing time for various reasons, but mostly because he was not good enough to play. All Arias could do is shoot the ball, and he showed that when he was on (Clemson in South Carolina), he could be a deadly outside threat for the Illini, but otherwise he was a non-factor. When you combine his inconsistency with the supposed attitude problems Arias had, it was pretty obvious to see why he was not playing.

Impact on the Team: Arias was one of many Junior College players Lon Kruger recruited to come to Illinois. He was basically a one-dimensional player, who was used to fill a scholarship while Lon tried to rebuild the Illinois program that was still feeling the effects of the Deon Thomas scandal. Recruit Ranking: Two stars

Marcus Griffin was the second piece to the most important group of three recruits in Lon Kruger's tenure at Illinois, the Peoria Manual Trio. Marcus and Sergio were down to Indiana and Illinois, before eventually deciding to attend Illinois the night before National Letter of Intent Signing Day. The only problem with Marcus Griffin's signing with Illinois was he did not qualify to play at Illinois, so he had to attend a junior college. Marcus enrolled at Lincoln Community College and played there for two years before rejoining Illinois as a member of the Class of 1999.

Impact on the Team: Marcus was instrumental in helping to convince Sergio McClain in attending Illinois over Indiana, and just for that his impact on the team as a member of the Class of 1997 is huge. Even without stepping foot on the court for the Illini for two seasons, his presence was felt right away because of his high school teammate and friend Sergio McClain donning the orange and blue. Recruit Ranking: Three stars (the ranking for his impact on the court will not be provided until the Class of 1999 is broken down, this is just for how important he was in 1997's class).

When you look back at Lon Kruger's tenure at Illinois, I do not think there is any debate as to who the most important recruit he signed was. That player is Sergio McClain. Without Sergio McClain as a leader of the whole team, but specifically Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin, Illinois may not be in the position they sit right now among the best in college basketball year in and year out. Sergio McClain's basketball career through high school and college is best described by one word: winner. His high school exploits are well known, and his time at Illinois saw two Big Ten Championships in four seasons, including Illinois' first since 1984.

As a freshman Sergio was a role player off the bench learning the game of college basketball from a group of five experienced senior starters, Matt Heldman, Kevin Turner, Jerry Hester, Brian Johnson, and Jerry Gee. Sergio was Illinois' sixth man, and defensive stopper. Sergio was able to come into the game and play either the three or the four position, giving Lon Kruger flexibility in resting players during Illinois' run to the Big Ten Championship in 1998.

The 1998-1999 season was supposed to be the year Sergio McClain put his stamp on the Illinois basketball program. Unfortunately, the season was one of struggles for McClain. He was asked by head coach Lon Kruger to play out of position at point guard during various points in the season, and that hurt Sergio's overall game on the court, and caused him to butt heads with his head coach. Sergio was not the player Illinois looked at to score, nor was he considered Illinois' best player in a season he and fans assumed he would be. But, Illinois made a run in the Big Ten Tournament, and Sergio was going to be joined by his high school teammates Marcus Griffin and Frank Williams in Champaign. Things were looking up for both Sergio and the Illini.

Heading into the 1999-2000 season, Illinois was picked to be a pre-season contender with Ohio State and Michigan State for the Big Ten Conference Title. The Illini struggled to meld in the new recruits, McDonald's All Americans Brian Cook, Marcus Griffin, and Frank Williams and despite finishing the season in third place in the Big Ten, Illinois struggled. Sergio butted heads again with Lon, and even thought about transferring at one point in the season. Luckily for Illinois, its fans, and even Sergio he toughed it out and stayed at Illinois. The end of his junior season was not the end of the drama in his Illinois career, as starting in his senior season Illinois would now be coached by Bill Self.

Bill Self arrived in Champaign and he had already heard the legend of the Peoria Manual Trio, and he leaned on Sergio to help in his adjustment to coaching the Fighting Illini. Sergio's leadership characteristics really shined during his senior season as he worked with his teammates in getting them to play like a cohesive unit on the court despite the switch in coaches before a year the team was supposed to break onto the national scene with a Final Four run. Illinois' nemesis this season was not someone in the Big Ten, but it was the University of Arizona Wildcats. In the Elite Eight, the Wildcats ended Illinois' season and Sergio's career in the rubber game of what turned into a three game series between the two programs. Arizona won in Maui and San Antonio, while Illinois defeated the Wildcats in Chicago.

Sergio's Illinois career ended with three winning seasons, three NCAA Tournament appearances, two Big Ten Championships, and one Elite Eight appearance. While he never achieved the ultimate pinnacle of college basketball, Sergio will go down as the key recruit in building the Illinois program to the level it is at today. He helped lay the foundation for the success Illinois is seeing right now, and for that all Illinois fans should be grateful.

Impact on the Team: There is no player in the last seven years that has had an impact on Illinois basketball when you combine on the court success and off the court pull than Sergio McClain. His impact on the Illinois Basketball Team is still seen today. He was the first member of the recent "Peoria pipeline" that has driven down I-74 to play college basketball, and he did everything he could on the court to help Illinois win. Recruit Ranking: Five Stars

Awvee only played one season at Illinois, the 1997-1998 Big Ten Championship season. He came into games and he threw down slam dunks, and that was about it. He barely did anything else for Illinois, but he was sure fun to watch on the court. After the 1997-1998 season Awvee transferred from Illinois to Arizona State where he finished out his college career.

Impact on the Team: Very little. He played some decent minutes giving the Illinois big men a rest, but his impact was minimal. Recruit Ranking: One Star.

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