If there was a single event that led to Illinois State's success in 1996-97, it took place one day last fall when two of the Red-birds' best players tried to beat each other senseless. Forwards Rico Hill and Dan Muller were playing on the same team in a preseason pickup game when Hill's laissez-faire passing resulted in a turnover. "What are you doing?" screamed Muller, Illinois State's captain. "My fault," Hill said. "It's always your fault!" barked Muller. The dispute escalated from there: Hill snapped back at Muller. Muller pushed Hill. Punches were thrown. With neither Mills Lane nor Redbirds coach Kevin Stallings on the scene, teammates needed five minutes to break up the tussle.
A year later the 6'6", 225-pound Hill is considered one of the top power forwards in college, and he credits the fight with changing his attitude. "It was a reality check," he says. "I was playing so lackadaisically, it was causing problems. I don't know how we bonded from a fight, but after that we got really cool." Led by its pair of pugilists, Illinois State went 24-6 last season and to the NCAA tournament for the first time in six years. There the Red-birds played Iowa State tough in the opening round before losing 69-57. Hill paced Illinois State with 18.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game, while Muller added 11.0 points and won his second straight Missouri Valley Conference defensive player of the year award.
More important, last year's Redbirds had strong homing instincts. All 14 players are back, as is Stallings, who stayed at Illinois State after flirting with the possibility of coaching at Tennessee, Ohio State or Michigan. In the short term, however, the Redbirds will have to deal with the absence of two starters: Rugged center LeRoy Watkins will be out with a shoulder injury until at least late November, and guard Jamar Smiley, who was fourth in the nation in assists last year, is suspended for the season's first two games after pleading guilty last month to a misdemeanor charge of unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.
That means Hill will have to produce more in the early going. A Chicago-area native who grew up burdened by his weight—in the seventh grade he was 5'5" and 175 pounds—Hill shed his baby fat in high school and turned down city colleges DePaul and Saint Louis in favor of life in Normal, site of Illinois State. After an unspectacular freshman season, Hill spent the following summer honing his game at Chicago's famed LeClaire Courts against the likes of Antoine Walker (now with the Boston Celtics), and he blossomed last season as a sophomore, scoring 25 or more points six times. "Rico became the kind of player last year that I thought he might become as a junior," says Stallings. "He got through some barriers in terms of working hard and really became a guy we could depend on."
The catalyst, of course, was Muller, who says that he still has to get in Hill's face occasionally. But even Muller grudgingly admits, "Rico can do everything. Just don't tell him I said that."
Too late. The word on Hill—and on Illinois State—is out.