The University of Illinois men’s basketball team is a fully credentialed member of the Chicago sports fraternity, and the Fighting Illini earned their place on merit. Over the years they’ve been the same head cases and chokers as the Cubs and White Sox; whenever they’ve had a terrific team it’s always come up a little bit short (in marked contrast with DePaul, whose great teams have come up a lot short). The fine Illini squad of 2001 lost in a mild upset to eventual champ Arizona in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament. The “Flying Illini” of Kenny Battle, Nick Anderson, and Kendall Gill reached the Final Four in 1989, only to lose to eventual champ Michigan in the semis. The same fate befell Illinois in 1951 and again in ’52, a season that saw the first of three very good John “Red” Kerr teams. Going into this season, the Illini had been ranked first in the college basketball polls only twice, in ’52 and ’89, and each time they immediately lost.
Perhaps it’s only the optimism that comes with a new year, but from the beginning this season has looked like something different. The Illini returned last year’s starting five: forwards James Augustine and Roger Powell and guards Deron Williams, Dee Brown, and Luther Head, all recruited by the previous coach, Bill Self. This continuity granted them a decided advantage in the early going, given how turbulent college basketball has become with the rampant defections of underclassmen to the NBA. After three warm-up games against weak competition, they brought a full contingent of “Orange Krush” fans to Indianapolis, where they walloped Gonzaga 89-72. (The game was over at halftime, 58-27.) Then they welcomed Wake Forest to Assembly Hall in Champaign and dispatched them just as easily, 91-73, for their first win over a top-ranked opponent since they brought down Magic Johnson’s Michigan State team in 1979. (I was on campus for that one; the Illini would lose before they could even be voted into the top spot.) This time, however, two more wins over early-season patzers protected the top ranking, which made their trip to Washington, D.C., to play Georgetown their first true test wearing the crown. The young Hoyas looked primed for an upset, and at first the game had all the makings of the usual Illinois collapse. But the Illini pulled even at 22 and then tightened the screws on defense to claim a 31-24 lead at the half. They coasted to a 74-59 victory. If they could defeat unbeaten Oregon in style when the Illini made their annual trip to Chicago’s United Center, they’d become the first Illinois team ever to claim and retain the top ranking.
A sold-out orange-clad crowd of 21,224 was there to greet them December 11. In marked contrast with the Bulls’ “sellouts” over the last few years, which found many season-ticket holders staying home, almost every seat was filled. Yet the Illini showed no sign of nerves, despite the high expectations of the crowd and the pressure of being king of the mountain. Though the Illini weren’t quite as crisp as they’d looked against Gonzaga and Wake Forest–it was their fourth game in four locations in eight days, and it showed–they took an early lead, padded it out to double digits at the half, and kept their foot on Oregon’s throat. They were impressive.
With a three-guard starting lineup and only thin 6-foot-10-inch Augustine to offer any substantial presence under the basket, the Illini looked to be weak inside, so of course they went to Augustine right away. He scored two of their first three baskets, the first on a nice little jump hook he’s added to his arsenal, the second on a sweet interior pass from the driving Powell. Then Brown, the high-energy former Proviso East guard, stripped his opposite number, Aaron Brooks, leading to a two-on-one fast break. Brown dished to Williams, who missed the contested layup, but Head–the Manley product who is the most flying of this season’s Illini–swooped in trailing the play to tip the ball in and put his team up 10-2.
Having established Augustine as a threat, the Illini could pass the ball in to him and then out to one of the three guards. (The formal “point guard” is usually considered to be Williams, who assumed that leadership role last year with the arrival of new coach Bruce Weber, but Weber has been able to create an egalitarian system in which all three get a chance to handle the ball and make plays to set up themselves or their teammates–not an easy thing to accomplish in a sport where it’s sometimes said there aren’t enough balls to accommodate even two stars on one team; see last year’s Los Angeles Lakers, with Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant.) Augustine took a pass inside and made a crosscourt pass to Williams, who passed back to Head on the perimeter. Head drilled an open three to make it 18-11.
“They’re very unselfish,” Weber would say later. “I think that’s the best thing about them. If somebody’s open, they get him the ball.”
“We have confidence in each other,” Head said after the game, when the three guards held court side by side in the media interview room. “We move the ball, and when the shots come we take them.”
On defense the Illini played a stiff man-to-man, each of them with an arm out front overplaying the passing lane. Once teams get in their midseason offensive rhythm, which should be about the time the Big Ten season begins next month, the Illini will find they’re susceptible to back cuts. But their defense was driving early-season opponents to distraction. Brown made another strip and was gone. No one was behind him but orange-clad teammates as his layup made the score 22-11. On the rare occasions when the defense failed, Augustine and Powell–as well as bench players Nick Smith and Jack Ingram–showed an eagerness to rush to the basket with help from the weak side. It was a stern, flexible defense, and fans could hear Weber’s high-pitched, squeaky voice constantly urging, advising, cajoling.
The Illini are a good, fundamentally sound team, but the thing that makes them special–for now, anyway–is Head. Where Brown is small and intense and Williams solid and controlled, Head is lean and athletic. He was almost all unfulfilled promise up to this season; yet having settled into a senior-year maturity after surviving some personal problems and injuries, he came in leading the Illini in scoring with 15.5 points a game. His long-armed leaping layin made it 36-24, and when he converted an alley-oop pass from Brown, who served it up like a scoop of ice cream on a sundae, he had a team-high 14 points and the Illini led 43-29 at the half.
They attacked Oregon methodically in the second half, then mixed in some razzle-dazzle. Head took a rebound from the pencil-thin Smith and rushed the ball straight upcourt, knifing past a defender with a clever little stutter step to put the Illini up 51-33. Then Brown forced a one-on-two break and fluttered the ball up and in from under a far bigger player. Head left a long pass hanging over the basket on a fast break, and Williams hurtled in on the wing and tipped the ball in one-handed. The Illini never blew Oregon off the court the way they had Gonzaga and Wake Forest, but though one could sense the Ducks pressing to get the lead down to ten and make a game of it, the Illini kept them at arm’s length. The one time the lead narrowed to 15 points, Head responded with a drive and a running finger roll, and the Illini ran it back out to 20.
Weber cleared the bench. But Brown, who was left in, shepherded the scrubs home with a no-prisoners attitude, his bright orange mouth guard jutting out from his pursed lips like Michael Jordan’s tongue. He feathered a perfect pass over the fingertips of an Oregon defender to Fred Nkemdi, who scored the last Illinois points on what turned out to be the team’s lone dunk of the day. The final was 83-66. Head led all players with 23 points, but each Illinois starter scored in double figures.
Not to put more pressure on the Illini, but the performance was reminiscent of nothing so much as the Bulls in the fall of 1990, when they brought back their nucleus, started blowing teams off the floor, and looked like a team that could finally unseat the Detroit Pistons as champions. The Illini’s self-confidence was only more apparent in their next game. After a week off for final exams, they beat Valparaiso 93-56 last Sunday to guarantee another week as the number-one team in the country. “I just think we’re good,” Williams said matter-of-factly after the Oregon game, “and if we play the way we’re supposed to play we’re going to win the game.”
Weber has drilled fundamentals into his team. But when Lou Henson did the same thing he only made his Illini more anal-retentive. Finally he loosened up and let the 1989 squad fly around. Weber mixes sound coaching with a loose, playful demeanor that’s even more comical thanks to his voice. “We keep winning like this, it’s fun,” he said. “I don’t think there’s any pressure. I don’t think they go sit in a room and think, ‘We’re number one,’ and talk to themselves or anything. It’s just a good thing. . . . They’re real loose.”
“We knew the history of our program,” Williams admitted. “We’re just worried about getting better and preparing for each game as it comes.”
A “we’re too dumb to be worried” approach defused the intense pressure the Boston Red Sox were under this year. But Weber emphasized that his team was smart enough to know it was early in the season. “We still can make improvement, there’s no doubt,” he said. “I know if we’re going to make the long run we’re going to have to make that improvement.” What will it do to the Illini’s heads when the competition catches up with them during the grind of the Big Ten season and they stop beating teams by 15 points and find themselves in tight ball games? “Sooner or later, that’ll come,” Weber said, “but if it doesn’t, that means we’re pretty good.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jonathan Daniel–Getty Images.