Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illini's Wheeler Finally Getting Respect

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Illini's Wheeler Finally Getting Respect

Article excerpt

Illinois had hope of winning the Big Ten Conference championship before Saturday night's defeat at Northwestern in a game that was played without T.J. Wheeler.

It's kind of funny now when one thinks about the way Wheeler, a senior, has been treated in Champaign-Urbana since he arrived from tiny Christopher High in Southern Illinois.

Because he was from a small school downstate, Wheeler was overlooked for a long time. Every time he made a mistake or missed a shot, someone would nod and say, "Class A player."

Last season, he lost his starting job when Andy Kaufmann came back for his senior season after sitting out a year because of academic problems. Richard Keene was a heralded freshman from Collinsville, a player who chose Illinois over Duke. So Keene was going to play.

Wheeler got plenty of minutes and was in the game at "crunch time," as he likes to say. But there were still plenty of doubters.

This season, Wheeler has been described as the glue that holds the Illini together. Coach after coach in the Big Ten has singled out Wheeler as the player who does the most for the Illini.

"He does so many things to make everyone else better," Ohio State coach Randy Ayers said Tuesday night after Illinois won 80-68 in Champaign.

Wheeler had only four points and played just 22 minutes against the Buckeyes. His team almost collapsed again in the final 10 minutes after he was forced out of the game because of a cut under his eye and a mild concussion.

Coach Lou Henson now says that without Wheeler his team doesn't have much "toughness on the perimeter."

Wheeler's father, Tom, has been T.J.'s mentor and coach all his life. He says one of the things that separates his son from some others is T.J.'s work ethic.

"He knows he's not the most athletic player ever to play at Illinois," Tom Wheeler said. "He knows he has to give it 100 percent every day at practice so he'll get his minutes."

Wheeler is expected back for Saturday night's game at Iowa, but he left Assembly Hall on Tuesday night with a nasty-looking eye, which was swollen and bruised.

Time again to play the NCAA Tournament guessing game. The Illini are 14-6 overall and 7-4 in the Big Ten. …

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