The media consultant at a recent Illinois team meeting had just finished explaining the importance of paying attention at press conferences when he spied guard Deron Williams near the back of the room, seemingly in defiance of this advice, chatting with teammate Dee Brown. The annoyed consultant asked Williams, "What did I just say?" Much to the consultant's surprise, Williams repeated his lecture back to him, virtually verbatim. "He thought Deron wasn't listening, but he always is," coach Bruce Weber says of his junior guard. "He hears everything, and he forgets nothing."
Opponents have learned not to underestimate the stocky 6'3" Williams, who along with the speedy Brown makes up the Big Ten's best guard duo. "You look at him and you don't think he has the body to dunk on somebody, but he can do that," Weber says. "What separates him from other players, though, is his feel for the game. If you give him a tip about coming off a screen, the next play he'll use it and score off somebody."
Williams was the first player to pick up the motion offense that Weber introduced last year after replacing Kansas-bound Bill Self, and he's arguably the player who benefited from it most. After deferring to Brown and Big Ten player of the year Brian Cook in his freshman year, Williams exploded on offense, averaging 14.0 points and a league-best 6.2 assists. It didn't hurt that a broken jaw suffered in a Dec. 11 game that was subsequently wired shut caused him to drop about 25 pounds. "Some people say breaking my jaw was the best thing that ever happened to me," says Williams. "It definitely made me a lot faster."
Behind Williams and Brown, Illinois should dominate the Big Ten, as it did last season when it won the league title outright for the first time in 52 years. If the post defense of James Augustine and Roger Powell substantially improves, the Illini could top last year's Sweet 16 finish. "This is our year," Williams says. Now let's see if his teammates are paying attention. --K.A.
2003--04 RECORD: 26--7 (13--3, 1st in Big Ten)
TOURNAMENT: Lost to Duke in Sweet 16
will be a problem, because he's so tough. He talked this summer about playing slower, but I don't think he's capable of slowing down his game.... Deron Williams is the player I fear most. He's deceptive, he can score off the dribble, and when he's hot, you can't stop him. Make him put it on the floor instead of letting him get rhythm jump shots.... Luther Head is this team's instant offense. He's more of a slasher than a shooter, so you have to take away the basket and lob plays.... This could be a breakout year for James Augustine; he's as good as any post player in the Big Ten."
Williams has long had a head for the game; a wired-shut jaw helped give him the slimmed-down body to match.