Illinois basketball is confusing enough to start with. The campus spills across two towns, Champaign and Urbana. Coach Lou Henson's hair, the bizarre "Lou-'do," seems to change from black to brown, yellow to grey and white to orange with the passing of the seasons. An Indian named Chief Illiniwek is the symbol of the team, which Native Americans have yet to threaten with a boycott or a lawsuit.
Then there are the Fighting Illini themselves, whom nobody can tell apart even with a program. Is that 6'6" forward Kenny Battle or 6'6" forward Nick Anderson rising above the crowd? Is that slender, mustachioed Kendall Gill or slender, mustachioed Marcus Liberty switching on defense and scampering away on the fast break? Is that Steve Bardo. also 6'6" (what else?), playing point guard at one end of the floor the same Steve Bardo who's playing defensive center at the other? As LSU coach Dale Brown wailed to his bench during Illinois's frantic 127-100 pasting of his team in Baton Rouge last month, "Now which damn one was that dunking on us?"
Introducing the Big Ten's newest rock 'n' pick 'n' roll group: the Positionless Clones, Illinois's homegrown gang of proud, splendid athletes who not only look alike and work hard alike but who also run and jump and shoot and pass and defend with such equal versatility that opponents' bewilderment has become significant to the PCs' game plan. Why, just last Thursday night in Champaign (or it might have been Urbana), a Wisconsin defender rushed down the floor screaming "I got Gill." The trouble was he was rushing toward Liberty. Illinois won 103-80.
Then on Saturday afternoon, while Michigan was busy being terrified of how high the spectacular forwards, Battle and Anderson, might levitate for their inside slams—or indeed which forward was which—Bardo scissored the Wolverine defense with 11 assists as Gill struck from afar for 26 points. Illinois won that one 96-84.
"The best team I've seen in this league since [undefeated national champion] Indiana in 1976," gushed Michigan coach Bill Frieder afterward about the hosts. And he didn't seem confused in the slightest. Upon the Wolverines' late arrival the night before at their hotel in Urbana—not Champaign—on a Friday the 13th filled with tardy planes and buses and an impending ice storm, Frieder was willing to bet anybody $500 on the game. He would take Illinois. During his nine years as Michigan coach. Frieder has never won at Assembly Hall, and this season Illinois has not lost anywhere.
What's more, Henson is starting to become familiar with his PCs. "Coach doesn't say "Kendall, go in for Gill' anymore," says the glib Gill, a junior from downstate Matteson. "I think he knows me now."
Before this season, Gill had a career scoring average of 7.2 points per game and was a 47% shooter. The 6'4" guard-forward has bulked up nearly 20 pounds, to 196, since last season and is averaging more than 15 points on .589 shooting, including 25 of 44 from three-point land. On Saturday he outplayed the more publicized Rumeal Robinson, Michigan's indispensable guard, pressuring Robinson the length and breadth of the floor and limiting him to six baskets.
"Kendall's long arms finally got to Rumeal," said Bardo, who did his best to contain Michigan's marvelous 6'8" fallaway jump shooter, Glen Rice (30 points, 9 rebounds).
In the Big Ten it is obviously the year of deception. Dr. Tom Davis of Iowa's Let's Snooker the Refs with the Wrong Foul Shooter play paid off in a doctored victory at North Carolina. Ohio State's pint-sized Jay Burson has transformed himself from a bag of bones into a Player of the Year candidate. Indiana coach Bob Knight has acted almost like a human being. Michigan is thriving without a true backcourt. And Illinois has gone further than anyone, without even the semblance of a center.
When the Illini's 7-footer, Jens Kujawa, took his degree and went home to West Germany last summer, Henson began singing the blues about his team's lack of size. As the showdown between 14-0 Illinois and 14-1 Michigan approached, Henson was still caterwauling about Michigan's height advantage. "We look like a junior high team next to them," he cried. But his counterpart, Frieder, wasn't buying. "That team doesn't need the big guy." he said before the game. "If Kujawa could start for Illinois, I'd kiss your butt at halftime."
What happened on Saturday in the seven seconds before halftime might have turned the game, because—with his team behind 44-43—Gill 1) came off a pick to sink a 15-footer, 2) forced a turnover directly in front of Frieder's sneer on the Michigan bench, and 3) whistled in a three-pointer at the buzzer to give Illinois a 48-44 lead.
Nonetheless, Henson was understandably concerned, because his troops were being devastated under the boards. The Illini front line of Battle, Anderson and Lowell Hamilton had one board apiece at halftime. Eventually, however, Illinois's work ethic reemerged. "Everybody raves about our quickness," Henson said afterward. "But for us to win, we have to hustle."
The effort starts with Battle, the finest offensive rebounder in college. The smiling, leaping, lefthanded King of the 360's would rather dive for a loose ball than hurl down one of his extraordinary whirling dunks. Well, almost. When Henson decreed that this year's second-best Illinois hustler would receive "the Kenny Battle trophy," the coach was asking his team who possibly could match Battle in competitive fire.
Fellow jam-master Anderson answered: "Nobody in the country can match Kenny."
About 4½ minutes into the second half, Battle stole the ball and went coast to coast. Illinois led 60-50. On the team's next possession Anderson went up once...twice...three times with offensive rebounds in the lane, finally muscling in the ball through all that Michigan muscle.
Fouled on the play, Anderson converted for a 63-50 Illinois lead. Finally, Battle intercepted a Michigan alley-oop pass, blew into the open past three Wolves and fed Hamilton for a slam to make it 67-52 with 13:10 left.
At this point the Michigan game plan had become mass confusion. But this was not Northeasternmetrocentral Michigan or Southernmostgreatlakes Michigan, or any of those other fido Michigans the real Michigan always beats up on to get ready for the Big Ten season. This was the genuine article—Michigan period—and the Wolverines were not quite through.
Sustained by a steady scoring diet of Rice and the breakaway dunks of Loy Vaught (22 points, 8 rebounds), Michigan kept coming. While the home team was stuck on 78, the Wolverines closed to 68...70...72...and 74, with 6:03 remaining. But, ultimately, with no backcourt support for Robinson—Michigan's other "guard" is converted 6'9" forward Sean Higgins, whose shot selection (1 for 9) is out of Ripley's and who cannot handle close guarding (five turnovers)—the losers became discouraged and broke down on the defensive board.
Rebounding all alone, Battle laid in his ninth basket. After Robinson missed two foul shots, Anderson, who combined with Battle for 34 points, clutched another rebound and hit from the side. Immediately, Battle darted across the court for still one more theft—his line read 18 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists and 5 steals—and fed Anderson, who banked in a jumper. Now the lead was 84-74 at 4:13, the visitors had to foul, and Illinois made 10 straight free throws down the stretch.
"My guys played about as well as we can," said Frieder. whose guys outshot (.518 to .500) and out-trifected (6-3) the winners and ended up matching them off the glass (33). But Michigan lost the game at the foul line, where Illinois made 25 of 30 to the Wolverines' 10 of 14. "I'm telling you, Illinois is a great team," Frieder kept repeating. "I'm satisfied. I'm not going to jump off a bridge about this."
But there are no corks popping in Champaign yet over Henson's best and. easily, most fun-to-watch team. Locals are having trouble figuring out how this could possibly be the same gang that couldn't shoot straight last season, the same Illinois that habitually bombs out of the NCAA tournament.
Henson coached New Mexico State to the Final Four in 1970 but has not made it there in his 13 years at Illinois. Stunning tournament upset losses to Austin Peay in 1987 and Villanova last season have branded Henson as a loser of the big ones.
Even with his 519-victory record (sixth highest among active coaches), Henson gets no respect. After Illinois won the Rainbow Classic in December, the flight attendant en route home from Hawaii used the P.A. system to congratulate "coach Lou Herman."
"You know," reserve forward Ervin Small announced to the team, "Pee Wee's father."
Last year Illinois shot a Big Ten-basement .667 from the foul line and .279 from the three-point arc. That's fairly disgusting. That's also where hard work in the summertime came in. Gill, with trifecta responsibility, worked on strengthening his wrists and can now flick the ball rather than arm-shoot it.
The arrival of Liberty, the Chicago high school near-legend, also had its effect. Liberty, who was ineligible last season under Proposition 48, is, explains Battle, "the type of player whose existence challenges us to play harder. It's all about concentration. We're older, seasoned, and much more confident."
For his part, Liberty has struggled in the Illini's seven-man starting rotation—not one of them has played more than 27 minutes a game in a remarkably balanced attack—but the sophomore still boasts scoring and rebounding averages of 10.5 and 4.6, respectively, and he contributed a trio of big baskets against Michigan.
There are hopes in Champaign, not to mention Urbana, that these Illini really are tougher, gutsier, different. On Dec. 19, they came from 18 points behind to beat a solid Missouri team in St. Louis. At the Rainbow Classic they whipped dangerous Georgia Tech and Hawaii. They press and attack the offensive boards. And they're shooting .537, among the best in the land.
Illinois may even wind up surprising Henson. "I slapped five with these fellas before one game, and it was like pieces of iron. I've got to talk to them about that. They're gonna break somebody's arm."
Better that than the heart of Champaign/Urbana. Again.