The provider, the chairman of the boards and the purple heart are big reasons that this season may be the best in the history of Illinois basketball. No, those aren't the nicknames of two wealthy alums and a war hero, they're the inscriptions on T shirts that are worn by the top assist man, rebounder and defensive player, respectively, at each Illini practice, as selected from the previous workout. If that sounds like the awarding of gold stars in grade school, keep in mind that coach Lou Henson has a master's degree in education administration. And he's loaded with prize pupils.
Also notice that there are no shirts saying SENOR SCORER, DR. DUNK or MR. CONGENIALITY. "Our goals are to be the top defensive team and rebounding team in the Big Ten," says Henson. "We feel that anyone can shoot, but it takes character to do those other things. We accomplished both of those goals last year, and we did it with a three-guard team."
Last season the Illini went 26-5, were co-champs of the Big Ten (with Purdue) and in the NCAA tournament came within three points of beating Kentucky in the Mideast Regional in Rupp Arena, Kentucky's home floor, and advancing to the Final Four. And that was after having lost guard Derek Harper to the NBA hardship draft and sweet-shooting 6'9" forward Anthony Welch to the injured list (a broken foot) in the season's second game. As a result, Henson had to start 5'11" Quinn Richardson along with two other guards.
Now, with Welch back, Illinois goes from mismatched to, perhaps, unmatched, as 6'4" Doug Altenberger moves back from small forward to off-guard, where he belongs, replacing the departed Richardson. No one is happier about that than Altenberger, who all but owns the PURPLE HEART T shirt and could have qualified for the medal of the same name last year. "There were a couple of games I really got whaled on," he says, recalling nights spent guarding Iowa's 6'11" Michael Payne and Kentucky's 6'8" Kenny (Sky) Walker. "This year it'll be just the opposite. I'll be stronger than the guys I'm guarding." Look for a lot of purple picks in the Illini offense.
Altenberger's running mate at guard is 6'3" Bruce Douglas, the Provider, who was co-MVP of the Big Ten last year, with Purdue's Jim Rowinski. Douglas not only provideth, he also taketh away, as he demonstrated by leading the conference in both assists and steals.
The Chairman of the Boards is bruising center George Montgomery, the only senior starter, who at 6'9" gives up an inch or two to most centers, but little else. He was second in the conference in rebounding, a chore at which he got a lot of help from All-Big Ten forward Efrem Winters, who led the Illini in scoring, with 14.6 points a game. Douglas provides this insight on Winters: "Our offense really came along when he started passing to the open man on the double team. When your top player does that, it helps the whole team know that we want to take good shots."
Henson's system leaves little room for newcomers, but the player everyone calls Snake could be an exception by season's end. Juco transfer Ken Norman, a 6'8" vice-chairman of the boards, explains his nickname this way: "It's for my offensive rebounding, having a nose for the ball and getting there. Very few people know my real name because everyone calls me Snake." Another reason might be that he changed his name. He was Ken Colliers at Chicago's Crane High School, where he was first-team all-city in 1982. (To confuse matters even further, his brother is wide receiver Bobby Duckworth of the San Diego Chargers.)
Adding to a very strong frontcourt is 6'10" Scott Meents, who can spell either Winters or Montgomery. West German freshmen 7-footers Jens Kujawa and Olaf Blab, brother of Indiana's Uwe, will be Rothemden, that is, redshirts. If Illinois is thin anywhere, it might be at the backup guard positions, where 6'4" freshmen Scott Haffner and Glynn Blackwell should come on in time. Haffner is the more advanced right now.
The schedule is tough—almost brutal—but this is a smart team that sneaked up on everyone last season and has improved with experience.
Nothing would please the Illini more than to finish where they did last year: in Lexington's Rupp Arena, site of the 1985 NCAA final.
Welch adds a foot to Illinois's lineup.