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If there was a single event that led to Illinois State's success
in 1996-97, it took place one day last fall when two of the
Redbirds' best players tried to beat each other senseless.
Forwards Rico Hill and Dan Muller were playing on the same team
in a preseason pickup game when Hill's laissez-faire passing
resulted in a turnover. "What are you doing?" screamed Muller,
Illinois State's captain. "My fault," Hill said. "It's always
your fault!" barked Muller. The dispute escalated from there:
Hill snapped back at Muller. Muller pushed Hill. Punches were
thrown. With neither Mills Lane nor Redbirds coach Kevin
Stallings on the scene, teammates needed five minutes to break
up the tussle.

A year later the 6'6", 225-pound Hill is considered one of the
top power forwards in college, and he credits the fight with
changing his attitude. "It was a reality check," he says. "I was
playing so lackadaisically, it was causing problems. I don't
know how we bonded from a fight, but after that we got really
cool." Led by its pair of pugilists, Illinois State went 24-6
last season and to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six
years. There the Redbirds played Iowa State tough in the opening
round before losing 69-57. Hill paced Illinois State with 18.8
points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while Muller added 11.0 points
and won his second straight Missouri Valley Conference defensive
player of the year award.

More important, last year's Redbirds had strong homing
instincts. All 14 players are back, as is Stallings, who stayed
at Illinois State after flirting with the possibility of
coaching at Tennessee, Ohio State or Michigan. In the short
term, however, the Redbirds will have to deal with the absence
of two starters: Rugged center LeRoy Watkins will be out with a
shoulder injury until at least late November, and guard Jamar
Smiley, who was fourth in the nation in assists last year, is
suspended for the season's first two games after pleading guilty
last month to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized use of a
motor vehicle.

That means Hill will have to produce more in the early going. A
Chicago-area native who grew up burdened by his weight--in the
seventh grade he was 5'5" and 175 pounds--Hill shed his baby fat
in high school and turned down city colleges DePaul and Saint
Louis in favor of life in Normal, site of Illinois State. After
an unspectacular freshman season, Hill spent the following
summer honing his game at Chicago's famed LeClaire Courts
against the likes of Antoine Walker (now with the Boston
Celtics), and he blossomed last season as a sophomore, scoring
25 or more points six times. "Rico became the kind of player
last year that I thought he might become as a junior," says
Stallings. "He got through some barriers in terms of working
hard and really became a guy we could depend on."

The catalyst, of course, was Muller, who says that he still has
to get in Hill's face occasionally. But even Muller grudgingly
admits, "Rico can do everything. Just don't tell him I said that."

Too late. The word on Hill--and on Illinois State--is out. --G.W.

Returning Starters [Five]
Points per Game '96-97 74.1
PPG by All Returning Players 74.1