Work in Sports
Illini's talent is Self-evident
By Seth Davis, Sports Illustrated
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- This team may end up playing at the Final Four in March, but on the day I visited it appeared the Illini would have trouble winning a high school state championship. Brian Cook, the 6-10 sophomore who is the team's best player, couldn't practice because of a sprained ankle. Damir Krupalija, a 6-9 junior, and 7-2 freshman Nick Smith also sat out the workout because of nagging injuries, while 6-11 junior Robert Archibald was back in his native Scotland getting a visa renewed. Meanwhile, 6-3 junior Cory Bradford was hobbling on a bad left knee, 6-3 sophomore Frank Williams' left wrist was sprained and taped, and 6-8 junior Lucas Johnson had to wear a mask to protect a recently broken nose. Other than that, the team was at full strength.
Still, first-year coach Bill Self was his usual cheery, ahem, self while we ate lunch with his staff. (Upon picking up the tab, the restaurant manager invited the group to return "after every victory.") Self is a good ol' boy from Oklahoma without an ounce of pretense despite being the current holder of the title "hottest young coach in the nation." Self's teams at Oral Roberts and Tulsa were renowned for their toughness on defense and willingness to share the ball on offense. If he can instill those qualities in this group, look out. Lon Kruger, now with the Atlanta Hawks, did a pretty good job with a very young team last year, but my guess is Self's personality will be a better fit. As Self put it to me, "Lon was pretty low-key. I think I'll wear my emotions on my sleeves a little more."
The one thing Illinois lacks is an imposing center, but you don't need one of those to win in today's college game. In fact, a big man can often get in the way on offense. ( Brendan Haywood at North Carolina comes to mind.) In Bradford and Williams, Illinois has two interchangeable guards who can both hit the open shot or beat you off the dribble. (Anyone remember Scoonie Penn and Michael Redd? ) Cook, who is about 20 pounds stronger than this time last year, can be dominant if he's aggressive enough, and there are just enough athletic, complementary players to keep defenses honest. That personnel fits the mold of championship teams over the last decade.
Before I started interviewing players, Self predicted I'd enjoy talking to Williams the most, and he was right. Williams was maddeningly inconsistent as a freshman, and some folks around college basketball were quick to label him as a "bad kid." But I found him engaging and unflinchingly honest about his travails last season. "Some guys can just step in and be mature," he said. "[With] some guys, it takes a while. It took me a year to learn what to do, but now I'm in a good position." Self loves Williams, but he wants his point guard to be more vocal on the floor to help forge better chemistry. That is the X factor, because if the whole of this team equals or exceeds the sum of its parts, the victories in Champaign will be Self-evident.
Several Sports Illustrated writers are touring college campuses and will file occasional Postcards for CNNSI.com.
Postcards from Campus: North Carolina|
Postcards from Campus: Duke
Postcards from Campus: Seton Hall
Postcards from Campus: DePaul
Postcards from Campus: Notre Dame
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