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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.

Brian Cook
Senior Brian Cook has plenty of help, but has accepted his role as the Illini's first option.

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.

Throw in the fact that James Augustine has moved ahead of Nick Smith and the Illini have three freshmen in the starting lineup.

"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 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.

Games of the Week
Illinois vs. Missouri
at St. Louis

When it comes to rivalry games, this is one of the better ones. This season the game will give both coaches a better idea of where their team is. Both the Tigers and Illini have good wins, but neither has played a game this challenging.
UCLA at Kansas
Talk about two teams that need a win. The Jayhawk nation would freak out if Kansas loses to the Bruins. For Steve Lavin and his bunch, a win at Allen Fieldhouse would be huge, especially after Tuesday's loss to Northern Arizona.
Creighton at Nebraska

Here's a chance for the Huskers to regain superiority in this state. The Bluejays won this game a year ago and are the favorite this season. Nebraska is undefeated at home and the Huskers defeated a ranked Minnesota team there this season. The game will be a battle of pace. The Bluejays like it fast, the Huskers want to slow it down.
Indiana vs. Kentucky
at Indianapolis
Last week it was the Hoosiers and Purdue and the Wildcats playing Michigan State. This game is always entertaining and should be again this year. Indiana might be better than expected and Kentucky -- despite recent hiccups -- is still talented.
Oral Roberts at Tulsa

The battle of Tulsa is between a pair of teams that don't have as much name recognition as they have talent.

Bulldogs Still Have Bite
Guess who's back? Back, again. Guess who hasn't, won enough games.

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.

Offensively, Butler is balanced as Brandon Miller, Darnell Archey and Duane Lightfoot Jr. are each averaging between 11.1 and 12.6 points per game.

Around the Midwest

  • List Kansas sophomore Keith Langford among those who think the Jayhawks are going to be all right despite back-to-back losses last month at the Preseason NIT and a loss to Oregon.

    "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."

  • Who's going to win the Mid-American Conference? Who knows, but you better add Western Michigan to the list of teams that have a chance. While the Broncos are already 0-1 in league play after losing at Miami (Ohio), Robert McCullum's team has a pair of good non-conference road wins: at Michigan and at Auburn.

  • How difficult is it for a non-conference team to win in a Big Ten arena? Very difficult. Big Ten teams have won more than 83 percent of home games this season. The Big Ten is 40-8 at home. Illinois, Indiana, Michigan State, Minnesota, Ohio State and Purdue are all undefeated at home so far this season and nine of the 11 schools have no more than one loss.

  • Imagine what life would be like if Tom Izzo was your boss? A messy desk could lead to sprints. A long lunch might mean full-contact boxing out while trying to gain control of the copy machine. The guy is awful demanding.

    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."

  • Maybe the Big 12's elite programs don't have a monopoly on top talent after all. There's certainly some young talent throughout the league.

    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.

  • Not surprisingly, Purdue coach Gene Keady doesn't think much of his latest milestone -- coaching in his 700th game. It certainly is a feat, though. Only former Indiana and current Texas Tech coach Bob Knight has coached more games at one school than Keady. How long has Keady been in West Lafayette? He's been there 15 years longer than any other current Big Ten coach has had their job.

  • Does the Horizon League have a legitimate claim as the best mid-major league in the Midwest? Maybe. So far this season, the Horizon is 9-6 against the Mid-American Conference and an impressive 9-2 against the Missouri Valley. Last weekend, Illinois-Chicago scored a big victory for the Horizon when the Flames defeated Southern Illinois, a Sweet 16 team from a year ago.

    Who's Hot
    Brent Darby: Ohio State's top scoring option hasn't disappointed. Over the past three games, the guard has averaged 26.6 points per game and 5.6 assists per game. Included in that stretch was a 35-point outburst against Duke and a 30-point performance against Morehead State.

    Who's Not
    Southwest Missouri State: The Bears went 0-for-14 on 3-pointers in a loss to Tulsa last weekend. It was the first time in more than a decade that SMS didn't make a three-pointer, snapping a streak of 316 games.

    Quote To Note
    "Right now we should be the No. 1 ranked team in the country, but we haven't finished off two games in the last four minutes."
    -- Texas coach Rick Barnes after the Longhorns' lost at top-ranked Arizona on Sunday. Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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