Last December, after Illinois freshman point guard Frank
Williams played erratically in consecutive losses to Duke and
Maryland, he retreated into his dorm room and closed the door.
This didn't surprise Sergio McClain, his roommate and former
teammate at Manual High in Peoria, because, as McClain says,
"Frank's the type of person who deals with problems by himself."
But McClain wasn't expecting what he saw when he walked into the
room: Shoes lined up against the wall; duffel bags stuffed and
sitting on the bed; Williams, shifting about, still packing. "I
said, 'Man, what are you doing?' And he said, 'I'm out,'"
McClain says. "It took awhile to calm him down, but eventually
he came to the conclusion that he shouldn't be a quitter."
All the Illini could have packed it in during the next month when
they dropped three of their first four Big Ten games. Instead
Illinois, which had six freshmen and sophomores among its top
eight players, hung in there and matured over the second half of
the season. None of the Illini came more remarkably of age than
Williams. After averaging three assists and 3.5 turnovers in
those first four league matchups, Williams had 4.2 assists and
2.3 turnovers a game as Illinois won 12 of its next 15 and
reached the second round of the NCAA tournament, where it lost to
Florida. Now, with all five starters returning, the Illini are
primed to launch a Champaign campaign that could end with their
first Final Four appearance in 12 years.
Bill Self, who left Tulsa to replace coach Lon Kruger in June
after Kruger had left to take over the Atlanta Hawks, plans to
run fewer set plays than Kruger did. That will be perilous
considering the questionable shot selection exhibited by Williams
and his backcourt mate, 6'3" junior Cory Bradford. Bradford
actually had a lower percentage from two-point range (37.1) than
from three (37.6).
The Illini still lack a classic post player--6'9", 235-pound
senior Marcus Griffin comes the closest--but they do have a pair
of veteran forwards who pose matchup problems. McClain is a
chiseled 6'4" senior who goes inside and bullies big men; 6'8"
junior Lucas Johnson, by contrast, goes outside and nails long
jumpers over smaller defenders.
Few players, however, can bedevil a defense like 6'10" sophomore
Brian Cook, whose light-footed athleticism and perimeter skills
could make him a lottery pick next spring. Cook was voted
co-freshman of the year in the Big Ten (along with LaVell
Blanchard), but he also had a knack for playing poorly at
inopportune times. He scored a total of two points and had only
four rebounds in the Illini's two NCAA tournament games. Part of
that inconsistency can be attributed to his slender, 230-pound
frame--a liability that wasn't helped by Cook's tendency to skip
meals. "I never ate breakfast, and half the time I skipped lunch,
too," he says. "I just had so much going on, I was always on the
run. Sometimes I'd have to sit out practice because I was getting
light-headed. The coaches would have to give me a granola bar."
After an off-season spent hitting the weights and feeding his
face, Cook is now up to 245 pounds. His added muscle and
Williams's blossoming maturity will be the main ingredients in a
season shaping up to be much more feast than famine. "Last year
everybody got a little taste of what we can do, but now we have
to be hungry from the start," Cook says. "Being young isn't an
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER FREEWHEELING In a less structured offense the Illini need better shot selection from the backcourt, especially from the trigger-happy Bradford.
POS. PLAYER HT. CL. KEY STAT
SF [*]Sergio McClain 6'4" Sr. 3.8 rpg
PF [*]Brian Cook 6'10" So. 9.0 ppg
C [*]Marcus Griffin 6'9" Sr. 10.7 ppg
SG [*]Cory Bradford 6'3" Jr. 15.3 ppg
PG [*]Frank Williams 6'3" So. 4.1 apg
1999-2000 record: 22-10 Final rank (coaches' poll): unranked