No MVP for Illini basketball team

John Supinie

After a season where the Illinois basketball program set a single-season record for losses, coach Bruce Weber decided not to award a most valuable player at the team banquet Tuesday.

Otherwise, the focus shifted to next season. Illinois junior Rodney Alexander has left the team and will transfer, and the Illini will host Clemson in an ACC-Big Ten Challenge game at Assembly Hall on Dec. 2. A game at Vanderbilt was added to the non-conference schedule.

Illinois had awarded an MVP every season since 1941.

“We just felt the standards of Illinois weren't reached,'' Weber said. "We talked about the MVP. We didn't feel the team was good enough to have that. The team was pretty much unanimous. We didn't play at the level we thought we should. In essence, how would you have a most valuable player for that?

"It's a long standing tradition, but we just didn't feel our season was worthy of it, so we just let it go.''

Seniors Brian Randle (Lou Henson courage award, Matt Heldman "Matto'' award), Shaun Pruitt (rebound award) and Chris Hicks (Kenny Battle most inspirational player award) took much of the hardware. Junior Trent Meacham (most improved, Ralf Woods free throw award) received the other two individual honors.

A 6-foot-7 forward who played his first two seasons at Redlands Community College in El Reno, Okla., Alexander averaged 4.6 points and 2.9 rebounds. He started 15 games and played in 31 of Illinois' 35 games. Alexander started the first seven games, then fell far down the rotation before starting four of the last five games.

"We met with him like I do with every guy,'' Weber said. "I told him, 'Here's what I expect. Here's your role.' He didn't feel this was the right situation for him. I want everybody to do what's expected and understanding their roles. He just didn't fit in the right place. I don't think he has any idea what he's going to do.''

Alexander might drop to Division II or NAIA, where he could play immediately without sitting out a season. Meacham, a senior next season, may get the vacant scholarship.

Illinois is expected to sign junior-college forward Dominique Keller Wednesday, although the paperwork might not reach the Illinois basketball office until Thursday. A 6-foot-7, 235-pounder from Lee College in Baytown, Texas, Keller was recruited to bring some physical toughness, defense and rebounding. Weber said last season that the Illini expected to get those qualities from Alexander, but they never materialized.

The Illini host Clemson in the annual series against the Atlantic Coast Conference. TV assignment and gametime haven't been made for the Challenge. Illinois hasn't played Clemson since the 1998-99 season when the Illini defeated the Tigers for the second straight season, the only two previous meetings. Clemson will return three starters, including second-team all-ACC selection K.C. Rivers. The Tigers 24-10 overall last season after losing in the NCAA tournament first round.

Illinois will also travel to Vanderbilt with a return game at Assembly Hall the following season, if the Illini play a road ACC-Big Ten Challenge game as expected. Illinois also plays in the South Padre Invitational and meet Georgia in the annual early December date in Chicago, plus the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis against Missouri.

In other ACC-Big Ten games, Wisconsin plays at Virginia Tech on Dec. 1. Duke plays at Purdue in a rare road game on Dec. 2, when Ohio State plays at Miami, Virginia travels to Minnesota and Boston College hosts Iowa.

On Dec. 3, North Carolina meets Michigan State at Ford Field in Detroit. Also that night, Indiana plays at Wake Forest, Michigan goes to Maryland, Northwestern hosts Florida State and Penn State travels to Georgia Tech.

NOTE: Walk-on Steve Holdren is expected to retire from basketball because of knee problems. A Champaign Centennial graduate, Holdren has one semester left before graduating.

 John Supinie can be reached at