"Throw in a little Memphis," adds Johnson, referring to Bradford's hometown, "and you've really got something."
Peoria's basketball strength rests with its hybrid nature. It's enough of a big city to have housing projects teeming with talent but so middle America that its high school coaches still preach the game's basics. Longtime Manual coach Dick Van Scyoc, the winningest in Illinois history, closed his 44-year career with a state championship when McClain and Griffin were freshmen. Today, the coaches at all four Peoria public high schools either coached under or played for Van Scyoc, or, like Wayne McClain, did both.
"The ballplayers here are talented, but they're disciplined, too," says Verdell Jones, whose godson, Shaun Livingston, is a freshman at Richwoods High and touted as Peoria's next extraordinary guard. "They work on fundamentals every day. You go up to Chicago, the players have talent but they're out of control. You ever go into an abandoned home and turn on the lights? That's how they play in Chicago. Like roaches, scattered in all directions."
From the late '80s through the '90s the rivalry between Manual and Peoria Central routinely drew 6,000 to 7,000 to Bradley University's Robertson Field House, and in 1988 their meetings featured 11 future Division I players. Scanning the walls of Sully's sports bar on Adams Street reveals basketball roots planted at midcentury. That's when Bradley won three NIT titles over eight years; when the Caterpillar Cats, the industrial league team fielded by the city's biggest employer, lorded over its AAU rivals and in '52 even represented the U.S. in the Olympics; and when such icons as Chet (the Jet) Walker and Levern (Jelly) Tart ran at old State Park on the South Side. (They'd let a little guy join them. He wasn't very good, but at least Richard Pryor kept everyone laughing.) No other city televises live the finals of its Gus Macker three-on-three tournament every summer—and not on some goofy public-access cable channel but on the CBS affiliate.
Three years ago at the Peoria Macker, Williams dribbled through a defender's legs—twice—touching off delirium among fans. "People were running out onto the court screaming, 'I saw it!' " says Gus Macker founder Scott McNeal. "It was even better than the year before, when [former Manual Rams and DePaul star] Howard Nathan dribbled with his knees."
Peoria's tradition runs so deep that for three years no member of the Manual threesome—NCAA rules prevent more than two college teammates from playing on the same team—has been able to win the top men's division at their hometown Macker. They've always lost in the final to a team featuring Nathan and another erstwhile Ram and Blue Demon, David Booth. "We owe our success to the Howards and the Davids," says Griffin. "They'd kick our butts and tell us what to work on. Mostly, we learned to flat-out guard our man."
As this season began at Illinois, those lessons held extra meaning. In the first of its two wins over the Illini a year ago, Michigan State had a 41-16 rebounding edge. Within several weeks of their second loss to the Spartans, in the Big Ten tournament final, Illinois players began filing into the weight room. "By the time practice started in the fall, everybody had increased his bench press by 40 or 50 pounds," Griffin says. "All we needed was someone to remind us of defense, defense, defense."
That was Self, who took over from Lon Kruger several months after leading Tulsa to the NCAA South Regional final last spring with a stifling man-to-man. Self called the Illini's fortnight of preseason conditioning "boot camp" and on its last day handed each player a camouflage T-shirt emblazoned with WAR. His recruits were already converts. "I talked about Michigan State, but mostly it was our players who did," says Self. "They said, 'They're really good, and we've got to be tougher than they are.' To be considered among the elite, you've got to beat the elite, and they understood that."
In fact, the Illini's Peorians had already done it: At Manual, Van Scyoc and Wayne McClain had challenged them to shoot for the Michigan States of the Illinois high school ranks, Chicago King and East St. Louis's Lincoln High. The question is whether by beating the defending national champions, the Illini have demonstrated the Flintiness to become champs themselves. Self would have none of it, at least not last week. "We just want to beat Purdue," he protested. "But I'll tell you this: We're in the game."