A maturing Frank Williams has Illinois off to a hot start against a very tough schedule
When he graduated from Peoria's Manual High two years ago, Illinois guard Frank Williams left a trail of what's known in the vernacular as "broken ankles," the entangled legs of defenders who were fooled by his crossover dribble. Williams's moves were so memorable that Manual fans urged him to name them: The Catwalk was his slinky, behind-the-back, through-the-legs crossover; the Chicken Fajita Wrap, a bit of sleight of hand too complex to describe here. If the Rams had the last possession of a quarter, Manual coach Wayne McClain would order the ball to be put in the huge hands of his point guard. "Sometimes when Frank put the ball on the floor, his defender would literally back up, like he'd been hit with a punch," McClain says.
But then the 6'3" Williams spent his freshman year at Illinois on the sideline as a partial qualifier, and last season he discovered how daunting college basketball can be. Williams missed 13 of 17 shots in a loss to Duke as Dick Vitale keened his disapproval during the ESPN telecast, and then he all but decided to transfer after a loss to Michigan in which he committed six turnovers and had no assists in 15 minutes. Careless with the ball, heedless in his decision making, he seemed shackled by his vast potential. "It hurt," he says of the criticism. "I tried not to listen, but with Dick Vitale you can't help but hear."
This season, like his Manual and Illini teammates Sergio McClain ( Wayne's son) and Marcus Griffin, Williams has soared on the fresh breeze of a coaching change. After Lon Kruger left to join the Atlanta Hawks, Illinois lured Bill Self from Tulsa, and he has the Illini off to a 7-2 start—with their only losses to then No. 1 Arizona and current No. 1 Duke—and a No. 5 ranking.
Under Kruger the prime purpose of the Illinois offense was to set screens for shooting guard Cory Bradford. Self preaches ball reversal and motion, hoping to get everyone at least one touch on each possession. Bradford is still dangerous, as he showed by extending his streak of consecutive games with at least one three-pointer to an NCAA-record-tying 73 by hitting two in overtime during Illinois' 87-79 defeat of then No. 7 Seton Hall last Saturday. But it was Williams who willed the Illini back from 21 points down and into that extra period. He scored Illinois' final four points in regulation with two high-wire shots: a reverse layup and a switch-hands-in-midair flip not seen in the state of Illinois since Michael Jordan retired. Then, in overtime, Williams dropped in a key baseline jumper while being knocked on his keister.
"At first I thought everyone wanted me to come in and do what I did in high school," says Williams. "Then I realized that if you play in the Big Ten or against a Top 10 team, you don't even get a chance to throw a no-look pass. You just take care of the fundamentals. This ain't a circus."
Even if, at times, Williams can make it look like one.
Revisiting Tuition Scandals
NCAA Amnesty Goes Unclaimed
When the NCAA suspended several players last season for receiving improper help in covering private high school expenses, it endured a storm of criticism that the punishment was unjust because it was assumed that many more players had received similar help but hadn't been caught. As a result, the NCAA's subcommittee on student-athlete reinstatement issued a onetime directive last May providing for a 30-day grace period, during which schools and students would receive a reduced penalty if the colleges revealed that they had players who had received such impermissible assistance. The amnesty stated that if a player had benefited from improper help, he would have to sit out 10% of his team's games this season but would not have to make restitution.
Now, with the season more than 30 days old, only four schools have fessed up, a number laughably short of the total that was predicted. The NCAA apparently isn't going to let matters rest, however. As one school's compliance officer puts it, "If the NCAA is going to go to all that effort to change its enforcement process, it's not going to be for four kids."