Champaign Dreams

An atypical power forward and a pass-happy cast of unselfish teammates have made Illinois this season's most surprising team in the nation's most surprising conference
January 19, 2009

THERE'S LITTLEabout the build or the game of Illinois sophomore Mike Davis that fits theconventional mold of a power forward. At 6'9", his reedy, 210-pound frameis more reminiscent of Beaker than Barkley, and his aversion to contact in thelane, which almost borders on the neurotic, would seem to disqualify him asboth a dependable low-post scorer and a rebounder. Even his voice, quiet andadenoidal, doesn't fit the image of a man expected to bang in the paint formore than 30 minutes a game. Were Davis to try to go sneaker-to-sneaker withone of the Big Ten's prototypical bruisers—say, 6'8", 235-pound DeShawnSims of Michigan—there's every reason to suspect the initial impact alone wouldsend his wispy body tumbling to the floor, or perhaps even spinning off intothe stands.

But what Davislacks in brawn he more than makes up for with other gifts, which have made himone of the best all-around forwards in the Big Ten. Instead of scrapping downlow, he plays the game up high, using his long reach and skywalking ability towork the glass. (He ranked fourth in the conference through Sunday with 7.5rebounds per game.) And with his exceptional quickness and soft shooting touch(he's averaging 11.9 points), he has become one of the most important cogs incoach Bruce Weber's five-man motion offense, which emphasizes passing andabrupt cuts through the lane rather than a more static post-up game. Indeed,Davis is tied for second in the Big Ten in double doubles this season, withfour. "He's so long and athletic," says Weber. "He's the kind ofguy you see all the time in the SEC or the ACC, but for whatever reason, rarelyin the Midwest."

Witness Davis'sperformance in the first half of the Fighting Illini's 76--45 trouncing ofhapless Indiana in Champaign last Saturday. There he was trailing an earlyHoosiers break, gliding into the lane and, in one motion, rising above the rimto swat away a short jumper. At the other end of the floor a short time laterhe knifed inside with the ball and pulled up—just short of contact, ofcourse—to throw in a soft little jump hook. Later he smoothly buried a baselinejumper from 15 feet. By the time the horn sounded, Davis had poured in 10points, snatched seven rebounds and grabbed two steals. "My whole game isto try to take a different approach," he says. "Athleticism is myadvantage."

Not bad for a guywho was an afterthought in Weber's recruiting class two years ago, committingjust three weeks before school started in August. He averaged 2.6 points a gamelast season, but suddenly he's the biggest surprise on a team, and in aconference, that have been full of them this season. While the Big Ten'scollective ego has suffered because of its struggling football programs (leagueteams won just one of seven bowl games this season and are 6--16 in thepostseason since 2006), its basketball teams are redeeming it. Four teams rankamong the Top 25, and nine have won at least 10 games already despite astrength of schedule that the RPI rates the toughest in the country. (The BigTen has been first or second all season in the conference RPI rankings.)Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans are 13--2 after beating defendingnational champion Kansas 75--62 last Saturday and lead the Big Ten at 3--0,predicted recently that as many as eight league teams could make the NCAAtournament. "You're going to have to be a stud to win this league,"says Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers (3--1) are tied for second in theconference with Minnesota (box) and Michigan.

The Illini mightbe up to the challenge. Coming off of a disastrous 16--19 season that saw themmiss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, they were picked tofinish sixth in the Big Ten this season. Now, with a 14--2 record that includesvictories over then 25th-ranked Missouri and ninth-ranked Purdue, Illinois isvying for the Big Ten lead at 2--1. "I told the guys before the season wehad to fix our image," says Weber. "How you get up after you getknocked down goes a long way toward determining how successful youare."

LAST SEASONactually started to go off the rails for Illinois in November 2006. That's whenIndianapolis guard Eric Gordon, one of the top recruits in the country (andcurrently a rookie with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers), rescinded his verbalcommitment to Weber and signed to play for Indiana. The aftershocks weredevastating. The Illini had already lost out on several prized prospects whohad balked at the idea of sitting behind, or playing second fiddle to, Gordon.Soon other players began to back away because, with Gordon gone, they didn'twant to play for a loser. "It hurt our reputation," says Weber.

Enter Davis, whohad been so lightly recruited out of T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va.,that he was planning to spend last year in prep school to try to put some bulkon his 190-pound body. But while Davis played in an AAU tournament in NorthAugusta, S.C., in July 2007, his fluid, high-flying game attracted theattention of a number of coaches. Suddenly, he was getting scholarship offersfrom Clemson, LSU and South Florida. Illinois assistant Tracy Webster (now onthe staff at Kentucky) had been following Davis for two years, and thatconnection gave Weber an edge when he swooped in late with an offer of his own."I said, Why not come here and try to develop?" says Weber. "We'vegot a weight coach, a nutritionist, academic help. A prep school doesn't havethose kinds of resources."

Davis joined ateam with several flaws, perhaps most notably the absence of a reliable scorer.It was also a team divided against itself. During a second-half meltdown atPurdue in January 2008 that led to a 74--67 loss, Illini players beganscreaming at one another on the court. After the game they kept it going in thelocker room. (Citing a "team matter," Weber benched senior center ShaunPruitt for the next game.) "People were putting personal stuff ahead of theteam," says guard Chester Frazier. "Our chemistry was awful."

To correct that,Weber put his young team—last year's four recruits were joined by walk-on guardJeff Jordan (Michael Jordan's son) and Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, who wassitting out the semester in accordance with NCAA rules—through a spring ofgrueling workouts that focused on the fundamentals of the motion offense ratherthan individual skills.

He also turned toFrazier, a steady if unspectacular senior who aspires to be a college coach. Acareer 34.8% shooter, Frazier says he has accepted the fact that he'll neverplay at the next level. Before the season, he cut off his cornrows in order topresent a more professional appearance. "It was time to grow up," hesays. "How many executives and coaches do you see with braids?" Histeammates quickly took to calling him Coach.

Throughout thesummer it was Frazier who organized team workouts and pickup games and whodragged Davis to the weight room four times a week. On the court Frazier has"surrendered himself to being a distributor," says Weber. And thatpass-first mentality (Frazier leads the Big Ten in assists with 6.2 per game)has permeated the roster. Illinois leads the nation with assists on 72.1% ofits field goals and in assists per game, with 19.9. Four players average indouble figures in scoring. The Illini's three starting guards—Frazier,sophomore Demetri McCamey and senior Trent Meacham—have combined for 43 assistsand just seven turnovers in the season's first three Big Ten games. "We'regetting extra possessions that we didn't have last year," says Weber.

The superlativeguard play creates abundant opportunities for the agile Davis. Whether he'sprepared to take advantage of all of them is another matter. He has a maddeningtendency to drift during games, seemingly out of boredom or lack of interest.In the second half against Indiana he scored just two points and grabbed onerebound. Weber finally yanked him for good after watching him stand rooted tothe floor under the basket for the better part of nine minutes while histeammates fought for rebounds. "I think part of it is because we live inthe suburbs," says Davis's father, Steve, of his son's upbringing inAlexandria. "He was always comfortable and didn't have to grow up fast.He's competitive, but sometimes he's just not aggressive."

Davis admits thathe has a tendency to lapse into passivity but then in the next breath also vowsthat he always plays hard. "I'm like, 'Coach, I'm sweating!'" hesays.

Weber is impatientfor Davis to realize his potential as a dominant player, but Frazier knowsthat, like the Illini in their offense, patience is required. "We look atMike, and the game seems so easy [to him]," he says. "Playingaggressive, that's not his nature. He's just got to keep working."

Illinois may findit hard to wait. But the rest of the Big Ten just hopes he takes his time.

"People were putting personal stuff ahead of theteam," says Frazier of last season's Illini squad. "CHEMISTRY WASAWFUL."


See how the Big Ten stacks up in Bill Trocchi's conference power rankings.



PHOTOPhotograph by Scott Rovak/US PRESSWIREPROVIDING A LIFT The Illini thrive on the acrobatic moves of Davis (24) and the one-for-all, all-for-one attitude of his teammates. PHOTOGREG NELSON[See caption above] PHOTOGREG NELSON (SMITH)VOCAL HERO Smith could never live up to expectations in Kentucky, but he's seen as a savior by Gophers fans. PHOTOROBERT K. O'DONNELL/AP (FRAZIER)