If sporting another man's jersey is the ultimate sign of athletic respect, then one of the gamers in Dee Brown's closet helps explain why Illinois has the most feared backcourt in America. Alongside the typical throwbacks--Michael Jordan, George Gervin, Dick Butkus--hangs the blue number 5 of Brown's fellow Illini guard Deron Williams. Wait a second, Dee, you wear your teammate's jersey out in public? "Of course," says Brown, admiring his sidekick's threads like a Savile Row tailor. "Deron's my favorite point guard in college basketball." ¬∂ Considering that the Stylin' Illini have two other popular stars at the position--Brown and his roommate Luther Head--it's no wonder Illinois has been the story of the season. At week's end the Illini had spent nine weeks at No. 1 and administered double-digit beatdowns to No. 7 Wake Forest, No. 17 Gonzaga and No. 18 Cincinnati. Inevitably, their 21-0 start and a weaker-than-usual Big Ten spawned the tantalizing (albeit burdensome) question, Can Illinois run the table? After all, if the Illini could survive Tuesday's road showdown with No. 12 Michigan State, they would most likely enter March with a chance to fulfill the prophecy on the poster hanging in Brown and Head's living room: illinois basketball: history in the making.
Coach Bruce Weber won't go there--not yet, even after his team had dusted Wisconsin 75-65 in Madison on Jan. 25, ending the nation's longest home court winning streak at 38 games. "I'm worried way more about winning the Big Ten than going undefeated," Weber says in his trademark screech. Perhaps, but the Illini's hegemony was plain to see: Including last Saturday's 89-66 annihilation of Minnesota in Champaign, only three opponents had lost by single digits to Weber's wrecking crew. "I haven't seen a team in 10 to 12 years swing the ball as quickly and efficiently as they do," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose Bulldogs allowed 24 assists on 34 baskets in an 89-72 loss to Illinois on Nov. 27. "If you're not playing against them, it's a joy to watch because it's how basketball should be played."
When it comes to maximizing smart passes and minimizing mistakes, the Illini are operating at a historic level indeed. In the four years since the NCAA started tracking team turnovers as an official stat, no Division I school has had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1.57. At week's end Illinois was clicking at an astonishing 1.80 (chart, page 56). "If we have one commandment, it's to pass the ball to the open man," says Weber. "Instead of shooting with a hand in your face, get it to the next guy, and the next time he'll reciprocate. Passing is a lost art, which is why I'm blessed with these guys."
While a few elite squads may have two All-America candidates at the guard positions--Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Wake Forest come to mind--only the Illini have three. "The key to our success is that all of us are point guards who can distribute and shoot the ball," says Williams, who's so fanatical about assists (a Big Ten-leading 7.0 per game) that his coaches wish he'd look for his shot more often.
Led by Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson, the Flyin' Illini reached the 1989 Final Four with their skywalking one-on-one athleticism, but today's Stylin' Illini play with the ego-free ethic of comrades who wear each other's jerseys in their spare time. "It would be easy for Dee and Deron to say, 'Screw this, I'm going to get my numbers and go to the NBA,'" says forward Nick Smith. "But nobody's been like that." For Deron (rhymes with sharin'), setting up his teammates is nothing new: He performed the same task for Indiana gunner Bracey Wright when they played together at The Colony High outside Dallas. "I was always in his shadow, but I never had a problem with that," says Williams, who started casting his own last year, leading the Illini in points (14.0 per game) and assists (6.2).
Williams was the Big Ten preseason player of the year and is the backcourt trio's top all-around player, but Brown provides the most energy, sparking the punishing Illini fast break. "People love to see guys playing so unselfishly, so fluid," says Brown, whose charisma, orange headband-and-mouthpiece combo and unruly 'fraids (so dubbed by teammates to describe his half-'fro, half-braids hairstyle) make his the most recognizable face on the team.
Yet out of all the Stylin' Illini, the one having the best season is Brown's fellow Chicagoland native Head, who was leading the team in scoring (16.5 average) and who saved Illinois with 25 points in its closest call, a 73-68 overtime win against Iowa on Jan. 20. "It's good to learn that we can pull games out when we aren't playing our best," says Head, a.k.a. 4-Head (read the back of his jersey), a onetime devotee of the dunk who raised his three-point shooting accuracy from 34.3% in 2003-04 to 43.4% this season. "We have so much trust in each other that if we pass to the open guy, we know he'll knock the shot down," Head adds. "And the people taking the shots have confidence too."
Perhaps owing to their transcendent backcourt, the Illini's most overlooked improvements have taken place inside. "Our downfall last year was obvious," says Weber. "Teams just said, 'We're going inside, and you can't stop us.' So this season that was the Number 1 thing to address." A colorful quartet of forwards has shored up that weakness, including starters James Augustine, an indefatigable rebounder, and Roger Powell Jr., a 6'6" battler who's a licensed Pentecostal minister. The reserves are offensive glass specialist Jack (the Professor) Ingram, an Academic All--Big Ten electrical engineering major, and Smith, a 7'2" perimeter drifter with a vaguely sinister nickname (Chainsaw) who unspools such gems as, "I like to think I'm kind of bipolar."
Mental states aside, the Illini interior has been good enough to win, if not necessarily to dominate. "The key is, all four guys are different," Weber says. "James is a runner who's athletic and has great bounce. Roger's undersized, but he's explosive and quick. Nick's got the skills of a European-type big man, and Jack is a rugged in-between guy who can rebound and shoot from 15 to 17 feet."
With the success the 48-year-old Weber has enjoyed in Champaign, and in five previous years at Southern Illinois (including a round-of-16 run in the 2002 NCAA tournament), it's hard to fathom why he was bypassed for head jobs all over the Midwest during 18 years as Gene Keady's assistant at Purdue. Oh, there were interviews, lots of them: Akron, Central Michigan, Drake, Miami (Ohio) and Toledo, even Southeast Missouri State. But never an offer. "I tried to help him get a lot of jobs, but no one was ever smart enough to hire him," says Keady, who finally helped persuade Southern Illinois athletic director Jim Hart (the former NFL quarterback) to tap Weber for the Salukis' rebuilding project in 1998.
Nothing, however, prepared Weber for the resistance he faced at Illinois after replacing Kansas-bound Bill Self in May 2003. "There were a lot of rocky spots those first six months," he says. The players balked at his preseason conditioning workouts, which lasted three times as long as Self's had. Nor did they cotton to Weber's sometimes disarming candor. "Dee was the hardest one to get to buy in," the coach says. "The first week I got here, we had workouts to evaluate the players, and right away I said, 'Dee, your left hand is suspect, and you don't have a pull-up jumper.' I was trying to help him, but he was thinking, Who is this guy?"
Tired of hearing Self's name's come up among his players and in the media, Weber took drastic measures a month into last season, famously donning a black suit and tie and holding a mock funeral for Self in the locker room. "A lot of people thought it was great, and some thought it was nuts," Weber says. "I don't know how Bill took it, but it was really a compliment to him. I had to get it in their minds that he wasn't coming back." Yet the ghost of Self wasn't Weber's only obstacle. An early blowout loss to Providence occasioned the customary Internet and talk-radio hysteria among Illini fans, and when Weber's daughter Christy woke him up screaming one morning before the Missouri game, he assumed the worst.
"She starts yelling, 'Dad, there's something hanging in the tree outside!'" recalls Weber, whose thoughts raced to the legendary Dean Smith effigy that angry North Carolina fans hung early in Smith's career at Chapel Hill. "I'm thinking, Oh, God, they've gone too far. They want us out of town." When he finally approached the tree, Weber instead discovered a stuffed feline above a message reading beat the tigers/coach we love you.
Illinois rebounded to defeat Mizzou, win its first outright Big Ten title since 1952 and reach the round of 16, falling to Duke. These days, the delightfully overcaffeinated Orange Krush student section serenades Weber with a lusty "Broooooce" when he's introduced at Assembly Hall--apt reward for a dues-paying grinder who grew up as one of five children in working-class Milwaukee and took the advice of his late father, Louis, to become a coach. "Even though Coach Weber got the big contract [$550,000 a season through 2008--09], he's still a regular dude who helps carry bags off the bus," says Brown, who embraced his new coach's approach midway through last season. Adds Illini assistant Jay Price of Weber, "He's a basketball junkie. At night he'll go home, have dinner with his family [wife Megan and daughters Hannah, Christy and Emily] and start watching tape. I'll check my cellphone and have a missed call from him at 12:37 in the morning."
Like the soon-to-retire Keady, Weber preaches man-to-man defense--the Illini often played zone under Self--but he has tweaked Keady's motion offense, creating "changes that are more suited to the modern-day player," as Keady says, with a hint of old-lion resignation. "There are more options, from allowing the guards to post up to giving players more freedom to shoot threes and go one-on-one. But they still get the ball inside and make the extra pass."
"The more skilled players you have, the more freedom you can give them," says Weber. "They're allowed to make plays as long as they do it within the system."
Despite the positive publicity surrounding the Illini's breakout season, the jury's still out on Weber as a big-time recruiter: All of the players in his rotation are Self's recruits, and Self outflanked him last fall to land highly regarded in-state forward Julian Wright of Homewood-Flossmoor High. That's just one of many reasons that Weber would no doubt love to meet (and beat) Self's Jayhawks at, say, the Final Four in April. ("That would be a hard game," Weber says diplomatically. "I think the guys would want to beat him, but Bill's also their friend.") But as any Illinois fan should know, it wouldn't be smart to look ahead two months, whether the topic is a possible three-weekend bus tour to Illinois-friendly NCAA tournament sites (Indianapolis-Chicago-St. Louis) or the chance to become the first men's college team in 29 years to go unbeaten.
Even the Illinois players were divided on the topic of achieving a perfect season. "I don't think it's impossible," declared Williams.
"Anything can happen," said Brown.
Smith had other ideas, mindful that Stanford and Saint Joseph's failed to reach last year's Final Four after taking spotless records into March. "The bottom line is, we're not going to win every game," Big Nick argued. "We're not the 1976 Indiana team or the 1991 UNLV team by any means. Those teams had, like, five NBA guys each. We have very good talent and play well together, but going undefeated just isn't going to happen. Besides, if you were in our position, would you want to go into the NCAA tournament without a loss? Talk about a zoo. Everyone remembers how you finish, anyway, not how you played in January."
You can always count on Chainsaw to cut through the hype. He's probably right, of course, but at least he and the rest of the Stylin' Illini know what matters. Perfection may be the goal, but they can still make history without it.
A Game of Three-Coach Monte
NO SCENARIO for the Final Four in St. Louis would be more delicious than one that includes this week's three highest-ranked teams, Illinois (No. 1), North Carolina (No. 2) and Kansas (No. 3). Two years ago these storied programs were partnered in a frantic hiring dance that began with the resignation of Tar Heels coach Matt Doherty. When the music stopped, Roy Williams had forsaken Kansas for his alma mater, North Carolina; Bill Self had left Illinois for Kansas; and Bruce Weber had moved from Southern Illinois to fill the vacancy at Champaign. Here's a rundown of some of the major and not-so-major developments that have occurred at the three schools since then.
NEW PLAYING STYLE
Sped up Doherty's secondary break and buckled down the defense
Ordered new videoboards in the Smith Center for next season
Season- opening 77-66 loss to Santa Clara; at week's end Heels were 17-1 since
Heckler at 2003 Kansas banquet yells, "Traitor!" only to be shouted down by center Nick Collison's father, Dave
Skit-filled "Late Night with Roy" Midnight Madness included sophomore guard Wes Miller impersonating Williams
"I could give a s--- about Carolina right now." (April 7, 2003, after Kansas's loss in NCAA title game to Syracuse)
Replaced Self's high-low offense and occasional zone defense with "pure motion" and strict man-to-man
Made orange the dominant uniform color
51-49 win at Indiana on Feb. 3, 2004; Illini were 34-2 since
In December 2003, discovers "effigy" hanging in front yard that turns out to be toy Missouri Tiger with message of support from Illinois students
Dons chef's hat for "Grilling with Weber" cooking spot on his weekly TV show
"This is the funeral of Bill Self. He is no longer the coach here." (Dec. 11, 2003, at pregame meeting to win team over)
Shed Williams's secondary break and installed high-low attack
Brought back red jerseys after 17 years in mothballs
79-58 win over Oklahoma last Feb. 29; Jayhawks were 23-3 since
More than 100 Orange Krush student fans at 2003 Illinois banquet wear T-shirts that say I LOVE MY SELF and DON'T GO BILL! (Self leaves six days later)
Brings doughnuts and pizza to student campers before games at Allen Fieldhouse
"The first thing I did was to check my pulse to make sure I was alive." (Dec. 15, 2003, responding to Weber's "funeral" oration)
IN THE FOUR YEARS since the NCAA began officially tracking turnovers, the highest assist-to-turnover ratio for a season has been 1.57 (Troy State, 2003--04). Through Sunday, Illinois, with deft ball handlers like Dee Brown (above), was on pace to far exceed that mark.
A Fashionable Style of Play
The three-guard attack used by Illinois can be devastating--and risky
WITH ITS BLISTERING backcourt troika of Deron Williams, Dee Brown and Luther Head, Illinois is the latest team to run rampant using a three-guard lineup. The Illini are advancing the trend of perimeter-overloaded play that began in 1993-94. That season Arizona coach Lute Olson switched his offensive focus from immobile big men--the twin towers of Sean Rooks and Ed Stokes--to his three hyperkinetic guards, Damon Stoudamire, Khalid Reeves and Reggie Geary. "It was pretty revolutionary at the time," says longtime Wildcats assistant Jim Rosborough. "Other coaches were calling and wanting to know what we were doing."
Arizona reached the Final Four that season, and by the time the Wildcats won the 1997 national title (with starting guards Mike Bibby, Miles Simon and Michael Dickerson), Olson's innovation had sparked a full-blown movement. Because there are relatively few true big men, coaches have compensated with speed--which means that three-guard sets have become commonplace. Last season Alabama and Saint Joseph's made the NCAA tournament's Elite Eight by relying heavily on four-guard attacks. In its second-round game the Crimson Tide upset No. 1 Stanford even though it was outrebounded 49--29.
As that statistic suggests, the three-guard approach has its drawbacks. The expression "matchup nightmare" is usually used to describe tall small forwards--think 6'7" Joey Graham of Oklahoma State or 6'7" Francisco García of Louisville--who can maximize their height advantage and athleticism against shorter third guards. And when a guard-oriented team grows cold from the outside, it often spells doom: In the 2004 tournament Saint Joseph's was 8 for 26 from beyond the arc in its loss to bigger Oklahoma State.
Guard play remains the key in March, and few teams can hope to outperform the Illini's terrific trio at tournament time. That's what they'll have to do, though, to knock off the No. 1 team. When asked how to beat his Illini, center Nick (Chainsaw) Smith replied, "I would do one of two things. One, play zone and pray that we miss our shots and you outrebound us. Or two, slow us down in transition and hope your three guards have the night of their lives." The rest almost went without saying, but Smith said it anyway: "Not many teams can do that." --G.W.