|Wednesday, December 18
Updated: December 20, 12:23 PM ET
Illini's youth movement ahead of schedule
By Jeff Shelman
Special to ESPN.com
Bill Self wasn't worried, he just thought things might take a little bit of time.
After consecutive seasons in which Illinois shared the Big Ten title, there was going to be a little drop off. Or at least that's the way it looked. With two freshmen starting in the backcourt and underclassmen throughout his Illinois roster, Self had realistic expectations. He thought the first six weeks of the season might be a little trying, but the Illini should be pretty good by mid-January.
But as Illinois prepares for Saturday's Braggin' Rights game against Missouri in St. Louis, the Illini are 7-0 and one of only two undefeated Big Ten teams. Yes, there were early-season warm-up games against Lehigh, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Western Illinois. But in the past three weeks, Illinois defeated North Carolina, Arkansas and Temple.
Drop off? What drop off?
"Our record's better than I thought it would be," said Self, who just signed a contract extension with Illinois. "We've been able to get some confidence and play pretty good."
Self admits the North Carolina game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge had much to do with the Illini's confidence. When that game was played, the Tar Heels were coming off the weekend in the Preseason NIT in which they defeated Kansas and Stanford. While the bloom is off the Heels a little bit, they came into Champaign as the hottest team in the country.
And they went back to Chapel Hill with a 92-65 loss.
"The question was 'How does Illinois play with these guys?'" Self said. "Our guys responded."
Much of Illinois' success has to do with freshman guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams. Self knew they were talented and was comfortable enough to make them starters from almost the time they took their first college class, but they've been better than he thought.
"We're further along than I thought, our freshmen are playing beyond their years," Self said. "I didn't anticipate James Augustine starting. I didn't anticipate Dee having the impact that he has. I thought we'd be a much better team in January and February than in December and I still think we'll be better."
The job Brown and Williams have been asked to do isn't easy. Essentially they have to replace Frank Williams, who averaged 16.2 points per game last season while running the team.
So far, the guard duo has done just fine. Brown averages 13.6 points and 4.9 assists per game and Williams adds 7.6 points and 4.7 assists per game.
In a time when every position has a label, Brown and Williams really don't. There isn't a defined "1" and "2" in this duo. If you must label them, call them both 1 ½ guards -- part point guard, part shooting guard.
How does it work? It's pretty simple, really.
"Whoever gets it, takes it," Self said.
The two are different, though. Brown is better in the open court and pushing the ball up the court in transition. Williams is better in the half-court, grinding it out when the defense forces the Illini to run a set play.
If Self has a criticism of the guards it's that they need to be more aggressive. At times the freshmen try to avoid mistakes and don't penetrate and look to score or find the open man enough. Instead they hang out on the perimeter a little too much.
While the freshmen guards have been better than expected, forward Brian Cook has been improved.
Highly touted since he was a prep player in Lincoln, Ill., Cook has been criticized as a college player. He's been called soft and panned for not being a greater part of the Illinois offense.
That's starting to change. After sitting out the first two games of the season for playing in an unsanctioned summer tournament, Cook has averaged 20.6 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. In Saturday's victory over Temple, Cook finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Simply put, he's looking for the ball more and scoring when he gets it.
"In the past he'd find a way, not to hide, but to take himself out of being a scoring option," Self said. "He'd go four, five minutes without a real opportunity. Now, he's impacting every possession for the most part. He's more aggressive than ever before."
Cook needs to be for Illinois to be good. With Lucas Johnson, Robert Archibald and Damir Krupalija gone, rebounding and establishing an inside game are concerns. Cook is still going to split his time on offense pretty evenly between facing the basket and playing in the post, but he needs to rebound and he needs to get to the free throw line -- something that's easier to do when he's on the block.
While the Illini have been adequate on the glass so far this season, the next two games will give Self an idea of what to expect when Big Ten play begins in early January.
First is Saturday's game with Missouri where somebody is going to have to lay a body on the Tigers Arthur Johnson, who is second in the Big 12 in offensive rebounds. After that is a Dec. 28 trip to Memphis where big man Chris Massie will be back in the lineup.
"Rebounding will be an area of concern," Self said. "We don't have the mindset and the big bodies we've had the last few years. I think we'll get better, but we don't attack the ball like we need to.
"We haven't been challenged like we will be on Saturday. This is a whole different atmosphere. We'll see how guys react to the bright lights. We'll learn a lot more in the next two games."
That may be true, but the early returns are that the Illini are a little better than people though.
Bulldogs Still Have Bite
With apologies to Eminem, yep, it's Butler.
After being snubbed by the NCAA tournament selection despite going 25-5 in the regular season, Todd Lickliter's team is off to another fast start. Entering Saturday's home game against Saint Louis, Butler is 7-0 for the second consecutive season.
Miami (Ohio) coach Charlie Coles was certainly impressed with Butler after the Bulldogs came into Millett Hall -- one of the toughest places to play in the MAC -- and left with a 59-42 victory.
"I don't think I've ever coached against a more intelligent team than Butler. And I've been coaching a long time," Coles told The Indianapolis Star.
"And I knew it would happen. You can see it on tape."
How good has Butler been of late? Consider: Since Jan. 1, 2001, Butler has gone 50-10. The Bulldogs went 30-4 during the 2001 calendar year and are 20-6 in 2002.
As has been the case since Barry Collier was the Butler coach, the Bulldogs continue to win with defense. Butler is giving up just 50.9 points per game and five opponents have been held to less than 50 points.
Around the Midwest
"I don't thinks ever unraveled," Langford said. "We got a couple losses early and after we lost those couple games, we had to let those go. If we still harp on the fact that we lost in New York and we lost in Oregon, then we can't move on, and that's exactly what this team has to do. And that's what we're preparing to do.
"Everyday we get better. We leave behind the losses, leave behind all of the mistakes, leave behind everything. I think that's the key to our team growing and becoming more of a unit."
On Tuesday night, the Spartans rolled to an 80-54 victory over Loyola (Ill.). It was Michigan State's 34th consecutive home non-conference victory. And Izzo was upset.
"I hate these stat sheets because when you look at them, they look pretty good," he said afterward. "But I'm extremely disappointed."
Baylor sophomore Lawrence Roberts is averaging 17.3 points and 11.3 rebounds over the past four games while recovering from a stress fracture in his leg. He's also managed to play 89 consecutive minutes without a foul.
At Texas A&M, freshman Antoine Wright continues to play well, posting three consecutive double doubles.
Quote To Note