Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Short but Undefeated, Illini Aim to Hang with Big 10's Big Four

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Short but Undefeated, Illini Aim to Hang with Big 10's Big Four

Article excerpt

The Big Ten Conference began the basketball season with The Big Four - Iowa, Michigan, Indiana and Purdue - and The Little Seven.

The Big Four were expected to battle between themselves for the conference title, while the best The Little Seven could do was pick up the leftovers from the NCAA Tournament's selection committee.

But an Illinois team short on size and any mention in the preseason rankings is showing it has a big appetite.

"We don't worry about the rankings," Illinois junior Jerry Hester said. "We weren't ranked at the beginning of the year. We're hungry, and we're going to keep playing like we're an unranked team.

"If we move up or stay the same, it doesn't make any difference. We're not on a mission to prove so-and-so wrong. We don't worry about that stuff. We just go out and play."

Illinois (6-0) is ranked No. 21 and making believers out of critics who said it wasn't a contender for the league title or equal billing with The Big Four.

A young Illinois team is beginning to believe in itself after winning at Duke in the third game of the season, followed by blowout victories over Kansas State, Southeast Missouri State and Ball State in the past week at Assembly Hall.

There's no confident swagger, but there's a feeling of legitimacy after rolling through the past week, much of it without guard Kiwane Garris.

Since beating a Missouri team that eventually earned the No. 1 ranking in the 1989-90 season, Illinois has entered the Big Ten race with more anxiety than confidence.

No big wins. No big ideas.

Mediocrity.

That changed this year with the win at Duke, not the Duke that's a sure thing for the Final Four but a team that's 2-1 against the Big Ten's Big Four.

"Anytime you have a big victory it helps you," Illinois coach Lou Henson said. "Anytime you're successful, you're a better player or a better team. When you have a big game like the game at Duke, it has to give the players a lot of confidence."

The Illini feel it, Henson can see it and their opponents believe it. …

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