The Noise In Illinois
Voluble freshman Dee Brown has the Illini off to a hot start
Illinois freshman point guard Dee Brown is only half-kidding when
he says the toughest thing about playing college basketball is
having to sit still during television timeouts. "I've got to keep
moving," he says. Brown, who says he sleeps only five or six
hours a night, may be a 6'0" bundle of nervous energy, but his
spark has helped the Illini to an 8-0 start--their best since
1995--96. Brown turned in his finest performance of the season
last Saturday, when he had 21 points, seven assists and five
rebounds in then 12th-ranked Illinois's 85-70 pasting of No. 11
Missouri in their annual Braggin' Rights battle in St. Louis.
"People ask me how I get Dee prepared for a big game like this,"
Illini coach Bill Self said afterward. "There's nothing to
prepare him for. He lives for this."
Brown, who was recruited out of Proviso East High in Maywood,
Ill., is certainly not lacking in confidence. He cites Sam
Cassell and Gary Payton as his trash-talking point guard role
models, and his eagerness to jaw with teammates has, according to
Self, meant that practices are much more intense than they were
last year. "I love it when everyone is talking to each other and
going at it," Brown says. "The gym feels alive."
Illinois starts two other freshmen and a sophomore, which makes
for frequent mistakes (including Brown's team-high four turnovers
against Missouri), but it compensates up for that with explosive
scoring bursts: The Illini broke open the game against the Tigers
with an 18-5 run early in the second half. Brown also displayed
a veteran's toughness--playing through pain after he injured his
left shoulder in a collision two minutes into the second
half--that mirrored his team's effort. The Tigers had been
outrebounding opponents by 7.2 per game, but Illinois dominated
them on the glass 42--32.
Brown has an ideal backcourt complement in Deron Williams,
another freshman who, like Brown, has a nice outside touch (43.5%
from beyond the arc through Sunday) but thinks pass first. Brown
(5.1 average) and Williams (4.4) were second and sixth,
respectively, in the Big Ten in assists, and as a team the Illini
led the conference in that category (19.3). Of course, freshmen
will be freshmen. Last week during a team gathering at Self's
house, Brown and Williams were having a dunk contest on a toy
hoop in one of the guest rooms when Brown accidentally put a hole
in a wall.
The youth movement has been particularly beneficial to the team's
elder statesman, 6'10" senior forward Brian Cook, who is playing
with a passion that was conspicuously absent during his first
three seasons in Champaign. Cook, who at week's end was first in
the Big Ten in scoring (20.0 average) and fourth in rebounding
(7.3), has been going to the hole more aggressively and as a
result was taking 6.5 foul shots a game, after averaging only 2.7
for his career. (In his 17-point performance against the Tigers
he was 10 for 10 from the line.) "This is the first time since I
was a senior in high school that my team needs me to be the first
scoring option," he says. Cook also credits the exuberance of
Brown and Williams for his more vigorous play. "I'm having more
fun than I've ever had playing basketball," Cook says. "These
young guys are goofy, but they're winners."
1. Mike Davis's meltdown was inexcusable. In charging onto the
court to vehemently protest (incorrectly) a noncall against guard
Bracey Wright and getting hit with two technicals when Indiana
was trailing Kentucky by one with 2.6 seconds left, the Hoosiers'
coach cost his team a chance to tie. After the Wildcats' 70-64
win, Davis was contrite, but how would he have felt had one of
his players gone similarly ballistic?
2. LSU's upset of Arizona reveals more about the winner than the
loser. The Wildcats, who were on the road and without senior
forward Luke Walton (sprained ankle), are still the nation's best
team. But the Tigers served notice to the rest of the SEC that
LSU (7-1 after the win) must be reckoned with.
3. Emeka Okafor will be the Big East player of the year. At
week's end Okafor, the 6'9" sophomore center for 7-0
Connecticut, was averaging 17.0 points and a conference-best 13.0
rebounds, and led the nation in blocks (5.4 average).