Illini Wonk
Saturday, February 05, 2005
  SI: There's Joy in Illinois
In a recent post, Illini Wonk referenced an entry in the College Basketball Mailbag of Grant Wahl that said Illinois would beat North Carolina in a head-to-head matchup (Jimmy Dykes said the same thing today and picked them both to make the Final Four).

Wahl takes a long look at the Fighting Illini-who he nicknames the 'Stylin' Illini'-in the February 7 issue of Sports Illustrated. (Photo here). Apparently, Wahl was a little upset that he didn't get the cover story-that went to Peter King's preview of the Super Bowl-but it did draw a mention on the cover.

In the article titled There's Joy in Illinois, Wahl dwells mostly on the backcourt trio. Wahl writes: 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.

He has more on the backcourt: 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."

But Wahl also pays his respects to the Illini who play in the paint: 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."

Wahl also documents Illinois' record-breaking assist-to-turnover ratio. 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. "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."

As for Coach Bruce Weber and the changes he brought to the program, Wahl writes: 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."

In a slightly strange accompanying article, Wahl says that the three-guard approach has its drawbacks and the caption on the photo of Deron Williams is: The 6' 3" Williams flies by most guards but can suffer when pitted against a tall small forward. I'm having a hard time recalling a game when Williams matched up with a small forward or when he "suffered" as a result of it. I would think that Deron would salivate at the idea of having a bigger guy guard him.

Whatever, Wahl ends the article with this paragraph: 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."

Illini Wonk agrees and enjoyed seeing an article about the team in SI. They should have put it on the cover. The Super Bowl can have next week's.
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