Champaign Dreams: Illinois shocks the already-surprising Big Ten
Coming off a disasterous sub-.500 season, the Illini are vying for a Big Ten title
Much of the credit goes to sophomore Mike Davis, a one-time overlooked recruit
Chester Frazier credits the transformation to the team's improved chemistry
There's little about the build or the game of Illinois sophomore Mike Davis that fits the conventional mold of a power forward. At 6' 9", his reedy, 210-pound frame is more reminiscent of Beaker than Barkley, and his aversion to contact in the lane, which almost borders on the neurotic, would seem to disqualify him as both a dependable low-post scorer and a rebounder. Even his voice, quiet and adenoidal, doesn't fit the image of a man expected to bang in the paint for more than 30 minutes a game. Were Davis to try to go sneaker-to-sneaker with one of the Big Ten's prototypical bruisers -- say, 6' 8", 235-pound DeShawn Sims of Michigan -- there's every reason to suspect the initial impact alone would send his wispy body tumbling to the floor, or perhaps even spinning off into the stands.
But what Davis lacks in brawn he more than makes up for with other gifts, which have made him one of the best all-around forwards in the Big Ten. Instead of scrapping down low, he plays the game up high, using his long reach and skywalking ability to work the glass. (He ranked fourth in the conference through Sunday with 7.5 rebounds per game.) And with his exceptional quickness and soft shooting touch (he's averaging 11.9 points), he has become one of the most important cogs in coach Bruce Weber's five-man motion offense, which emphasizes passing and abrupt cuts through the lane rather than a more static post-up game. Indeed, Davis is tied for second in the Big Ten in double doubles this season, with four. "He's so long and athletic," says Weber. "He's the kind of guy you see all the time in the SEC or the ACC, but for whatever reason, rarely in the Midwest."
Witness Davis's performance in the first half of the Fighting Illini's 76-45 trouncing of hapless Indiana in Champaign last Saturday. There he was trailing an early Hoosiers break, gliding into the lane and, in one motion, rising above the rim to swat away a short jumper. At the other end of the floor a short time later he knifed inside with the ball and pulled up -- just short of contact, of course -- to throw in a soft little jump hook. Later he smoothly buried a baseline jumper from 15 feet. By the time the horn sounded, Davis had poured in 10 points, snatched seven rebounds and grabbed two steals. "My whole game is to try to take a different approach," he says. "Athleticism is my advantage."
Not bad for a guy who was an afterthought in Weber's recruiting class two years ago, committing just three weeks before school started in August. He averaged 2.6 points a game last season, but suddenly he's the biggest surprise on a team, and in a conference, that have been full of them this season. While the Big Ten's collective ego has suffered because of its struggling football programs (league teams won just one of seven bowl games this season and are 6-16 in the postseason since 2006), its basketball teams are redeeming it. Four teams rank among the Top 25, and nine have won at least 10 games already despite a strength of schedule that the RPI rates the toughest in the country. (The Big Ten has been first or second all season in the conference RPI rankings.) Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose Spartans are 13-2 after beating defending national champion Kansas 75-62 last Saturday and lead the Big Ten at 3-0, predicted recently that as many as eight league teams could make the NCAA tournament. "You're going to have to be a stud to win this league," says Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, whose Badgers (3-1) are tied for second in the conference with Minnesota and Michigan.
The Illini might be up to the challenge. Coming off of a disastrous 16-19 season that saw them miss the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999, they were picked to finish sixth in the Big Ten this season. Now, with a 14-2 record that includes victories over then 25th-ranked Missouri and ninth-ranked Purdue, Illinois is vying for the Big Ten lead at 2-1. "I told the guys before the season we had to fix our image," says Weber. "How you get up after you get knocked down goes a long way toward determining how successful you are."
Last season actually started to go off the rails for Illinois in November 2006. That's when Indianapolis guard Eric Gordon, one of the top recruits in the country (and currently a rookie with the NBA's Los Angeles Clippers), rescinded his verbal commitment to Weber and signed to play for Indiana. The aftershocks were devastating. The Illini had already lost out on several prized prospects who had balked at the idea of sitting behind, or playing second fiddle to, Gordon. Soon other players began to back away because, with Gordon gone, they didn't want to play for a loser. "It hurt our reputation," says Weber.
Enter Davis, who had been so lightly recruited out of T.C. Williams High in Alexandria, Va., that he was planning to spend last year in prep school to try to put some bulk on his 190-pound body. But while Davis played in an AAU tournament in North Augusta, S.C., in July 2007, his fluid, high-flying game attracted the attention of a number of coaches. Suddenly, he was getting scholarship offers from Clemson, LSU and South Florida. Illinois assistant Tracy Webster (now on the staff at Kentucky) had been following Davis for two years, and that connection gave Weber an edge when he swooped in late with an offer of his own. "I said, Why not come here and try to develop?" says Weber. "We've got a weight coach, a nutritionist, academic help. A prep school doesn't have those kinds of resources."
Davis joined a team with several flaws, perhaps most notably the absence of a reliable scorer. It was also a team divided against itself. During a second-half meltdown at Purdue in January 2008 that led to a 74-67 loss, Illini players began screaming at one another on the court. After the game they kept it going in the locker room. (Citing a "team matter," Weber benched senior center Shaun Pruitt for the next game.) "People were putting personal stuff ahead of the team," says guard Chester Frazier. "Our chemistry was awful."
To correct that, Weber put his young team -- last year's four recruits were joined by walk-on guard Jeff Jordan (Michael Jordan's son) and Kentucky transfer Alex Legion, who was sitting out the semester in accordance with NCAA rules -- through a spring of grueling workouts that focused on the fundamentals of the motion offense rather than individual skills.
He also turned to Frazier, a steady if unspectacular senior who aspires to be a college coach. A career 34.8% shooter, Frazier says he has accepted the fact that he'll never play at the next level. Before the season, he cut off his cornrows in order to present a more professional appearance. "It was time to grow up," he says. "How many executives and coaches do you see with braids?" His teammates quickly took to calling him Coach.
Throughout the summer it was Frazier who organized team workouts and pickup games and who dragged Davis to the weight room four times a week. On the court Frazier has "surrendered himself to being a distributor," says Weber. And that pass-first mentality (Frazier leads the Big Ten in assists with 6.2 per game) has permeated the roster. Illinois leads the nation with assists on 72.1% of its field goals and in assists per game, with 19.9. Four players average in double figures in scoring. The Illini's three starting guards -- Frazier, sophomore Demetri McCamey and senior Trent Meacham -- have combined for 43 assists and just seven turnovers in the season's first three Big Ten games. "We're getting extra possessions that we didn't have last year," says Weber.
The superlative guard play creates abundant opportunities for the agile Davis. Whether he's prepared to take advantage of all of them is another matter. He has a maddening tendency to drift during games, seemingly out of boredom or lack of interest. In the second half against Indiana he scored just two points and grabbed one rebound. Weber finally yanked him for good after watching him stand rooted to the floor under the basket for the better part of nine minutes while his teammates fought for rebounds. "I think part of it is because we live in the suburbs," says Davis's father, Steve, of his son's upbringing in Alexandria. "He was always comfortable and didn't have to grow up fast. He's competitive, but sometimes he's just not aggressive."
Davis admits that he has a tendency to lapse into passivity but then in the next breath also vows that he always plays hard. "I'm like, 'Coach, I'm sweating!' " he says.
Weber is impatient for Davis to realize his potential as a dominant player, but Frazier knows that, like the Illini in their offense, patience is required. "We look at Mike, and the game seems so easy [to him]," he says. "Playing aggressive, that's not his nature. He's just got to keep working."
Illinois may find it hard to wait. But the rest of the Big Ten just hopes he takes his time.