Posted: Wednesday January 26, 2005 4:14PM; Updated: Wednesday January 26, 2005 5:31PM
The Illini's Nick Smith is the MVP in the media room.
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
I love the Chainsaw.
You, too, will come to cherish Illinois forward Nick "Chainsaw" Smith, the Bill "Spaceman" Lee of college basketball, if his 20-0 Illini keep mowing down the competition.
Chainsaw may not always be the best player on the court, but he is most certainly the MVP of the interview room for the nation's No. 1 team. If Illinois keeps bulldozing toward an unbeaten regular season (and late-to-the-party folks keep asking Who are these guys?), you can be sure Chainsaw will be a popular man.
How can you not love a guy who:
Graduated in three-and-a-half years (with a finance degree) and is angry about not doing it any sooner. "I could have finished in three, but I got some bad advice," he said, as if he were Omar Cook deciding to go pro.
Stands 7-foot-2 but prefers to roam the 3-point arc like Manute Bol in his salad days. (The euphemism coach Bruce Weber uses for Chainsaw is "European-type big man.") "I've never been a sit-on-the-block, beat-people-up type of player," says the 250-pound 'Saw, who's averaging about as many rebounds (2.7) as 6-foot guard Dee Brown (2.6) and hears the chant FEED THE HUNGRY from opposing fans.
Despite his Glass Joe appearance, has a tremendous pugilist's nickname, even though nobody (not even Chainsaw) is quite sure why he got it. (All he knows is that it came from former Illini big man Robert "Tiny" Archibald and ex-assistant Rob Judson.)
Got the best slow-developing "T" ever last year at Wisconsin. After being whistled for traveling, Chainsaw rolled the ball away from the referee, who then gave Big Nick the chance to retrieve it. 'Saw thought about it ... and ran in the opposite direction. Only then did he get T'd up.
Is more or less a 7-foot-2 couch potato. "Basically all Chainsaw does is sit at home, eat and watch TV," said teammate Deron Williams. "It's always him and Jack [Ingram] watching the History Channel and arguing about the Civil War." Said Chainsaw (or simply "Chain" to teammate Dee Brown), "We're the geeks of college basketball. Hell, I don't even have a cell phone, which is the biggest sin imaginable."
The Chainsaw pulls no punches, whether the topic is the Illini's chances for perfection (not good: "It's a miracle we've gone 19-0," he told me last week), his take on teammate (and Pentecostal minister) Roger Powell Jr. ("I wish we could corrupt him a little more"), or his second-year coach Weber ("Coach [Bill] Self would put his arm around you and ask about your girlfriend. Coach Weber's more like my high-school math teacher.")
So let the 'Saw and mates guide us through the Illini personalities, especially now that they're unquestionably the No. 1 team in the land. Never again will you have to ask: Who are these guys?
Dee Brown Nicknames: Lil' Dee, 'Fraids. Headbanded blur is the face (and speed) of the Illini. Chainsaw sez: "Great charisma. Dee can walk into a room and instantly get your attention with his personality."
Deron Williams Nicknames: D-Will, D-Boy. Ultrasmooth guard is U of I's bellwether and best passer. Chainsaw sez: "He's got a side like Dee, but he can also be kind of ornery like me."
Luther Head Nicknames: 4-Head, Lou, Looskie, Boo. Skywalking guard has come out of nowhere to be team MVP. Chainsaw sez: "A tough kid from inner-city Chicago who's pretty quiet until you get to know him. Real easy to get along with."
James Augustine Nicknames: Augie, Tiger Woods. Quick-leaping gazelle of a big man sparks team-wide mirth with confusion about his race. "When I came here I didn't know what he was. People will ask: Is James black? Is he Asian?" said Williams, who has a mixed background himself. "But then you see his parents and know he's white. We joke about it and call him Tiger Woods." Chainsaw sez: "James doesn't realize how good he is. Easily the most 'interesting' dancer on the team. If he wasn't playing basketball, he'd be the most popular frat guy on campus."
Roger Powell Jr. Nicknames: The Rev, Preacher Man. Undersized forward looks like Evander Holyfield -- and is even more devout. Chainsaw sez: "Before he decided to do the preacher thing, he was a lot like the typical college student. I wish we could corrupt him a little more."
Jack Ingram Nicknames: Brain, the Professor. All-Big Ten academic team member (and rapidly improving rebounder/shooter) is an electrical engineering major. Chainsaw sez: "Not your typical engineering nerd, but not like most athletes either. At one point last year we'd finish a game at 7:00 and he's go to the engineering library for eight or nine hours after that. I'd quit before I had to do something like that."
Rich McBride Nicknames: Samuel L. Jackson, Veteran ("'Cuz he look old," jokes Brown.) Long-range gunner gets cracked on for receding hairline, but his new "shaved" look will draw raves from the ladies. (Trust me on this one, Rich.)
So there you have it: the Illini's current eight-man rotation. Get to know 'em, because you'll be hearing a lot more over the next two months. And keep your eye out for more Chainsaw gems: I'm saving his best stuff for later.