Forget Plan B. Or even Plan C. Just think of Sergio McClain as the X-factor. A menacing 6'3 3/4", 228-pound slab of aggression, he's the closest thing Illini fans have seen to pure toughness since the days of Dick Butkus. Witness those 14 points he laid on Charlotte after bruising his shin and playing only eight minutes of Illinois' first-round romp over Northwestern State. (He averages just 7.3 ppg.) McClain is a glue guy, pure and simple, a senior who plays anywhere and does whatever his team needs. Pull down the big rebound. Grab the loose ball. Make the smart pass. Best of all, he locks down opponents of all shapes and sizes, even going so far as dropping or gaining weight depending on his upcoming assignment. Earlier this season, he ran more laps and ate more salad to get down to 220 for Andre Barrett, Seton Hall's slippery 5'8" point. Three years ago, he carb-loaded his way to 240 for a battle with Michigan's 320-pound Tractor Traylor.
Not that any of this surprises the folks back home on the hardscrabble streets of southside Peoria, Ill., where McClain played prep ball with Illini center Marcus Griffin and point man Frank Williams. "In our neighborhood, you learn all about survival skills," says Wayne McClain, who coached his son and Manual High to an unprecedented four state titles. "You have to be mentally sharp every day."
After Illinois got whacked at Iowa on Jan. 11, Serge shaved off his beloved Afro to show his teammates he was done screwing around. "I was making a statement," he says. "We're going to war." The very next game, against Michigan, he finished with the first triple-double in Illinois history: 10 points, 11 boards, 11 assists.
Just in case anyone still hadn't gotten the message, McClain rented a tape of the Ultimate Fighting Championship to put the Illini in the right mood as they readied for two-a-days after losing to Indiana in the Big Ten tourney. "It's all about toughness and heart," he says. And there's no better option than that.
Sergio McClain player file
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