If a revolution can turn on a single rebound, that rebound may have been one late in the first half of Illinois's home game with Michigan State on Feb. 6. Of course it was a Spartan who grabbed it-Michigan State, tops in the country in rebounding margin at plus-16.6 a game, claims caroms as its birthright. But then a curious thing happened. Illini forward Sergio McClain fixed two hands on the ball and, with a tone-setting tug, wrestled it from Spartans forward David Thomas.
An official whistled a foul, but McClain's audacious takeback signaled the Big Ten's new order. In a game of headlocks and cheap shots—a game, in short, that surely left NCAA officiating supervisor Hank Nichols mortified and Vince McMahon suing for royalties—Illinois fought the Spartans to a standoff on the boards in the second half and won 77-66. "Serge made a statement," Illini reserve forward Lucas Johnson said. "He was saying, We're here, and you're going to have to decide whether you'll come to our level or back off."
With the victory Illinois ascended to the top of the Big Ten standings—and would stay there at 9-2 (19-5 overall) by defeating Purdue 82-61 last Saturday—thanks largely to a nucleus of starters from a midsized Midwestern industrial town, Peoria, 111., much as three players from a midsized Midwestern industrial town, Flint, Mich., led the Spartans to an NCAA championship a year ago. "They're like we were," says the lone holdover Flintstone, guard Charlie Bell. "With guys from your own city, you've been doing it so long, you're like brothers. Last year I didn't want to let [fellow Flintstones] Mateen [Cleaves] and Morris [Peterson] down. The Peoria guys are the toughest guys on that team."
Whereas each Flintstone graduated from a different high school, McClain, Frank Williams and Marcus Griffin are all graduates of Peoria's Manual High, which won four straight Illinois state titles, from 1994 through '97 "We've been through so many wars together, there's a great amount of trust," says McClain.
There's a Peorian counterpart for every Flintstone. The Illini's answer to Bell is McClain, a 6'4" senior. "Serge and Charlie play the same role, even though they're at different positions," says Williams. "They both score some, rebound some and guard the best player on the other team."
Among the opponents McClain has kept in check this season are Maryland's Terence Morris, Duke's Shane Battier and Michigan's LaVell Blanchard. The Flint-stones all sport tattoos reading FLINT. Over the summer McClain made a tattooed nod to his own roots—the image of his parents, Robin and Wayne, the latter having coached Manual High to three of those four titles. In his well-roundedness, even in his onetime dream of playing for Bob Knight at Indiana, Sergio is every bit the coach's son.
Williams, a 6'3" sophomore point guard, is the Illini's Cleaves. "Frank himself will tell you that Mateen was more of a true leader, more vocal," says Illinois coach Bill Self. "Mateen would not let that team lose, and Frank's growing into that role for us."
A year ago, after Michigan State trounced the Illini by 25 points in East Lansing, Cleaves sought out Williams to reassure him that his day would come. "He took me to the side and compared his own freshman year to mine," says Williams, whose break-you-down style is in the tradition of several generations of Peorian backcourtmen.
Williams spent his first season at Manual butting heads with the old-school ways of the elder McClain, who regularly tossed him from practice. With Griffin, a 6'9" senior center whose steady production suggests that of Peterson, the coach had the opposite problem. Griffin was so withdrawn that he would show up for practice and suddenly leave. Just as Williams's mother, Mary, ordered her son to return to the gym, so did Griffin's mom, Ollie Walls, until he began to make friends and blossom. "That first year Marcus would never open his mouth," says Coach McClain, "but he started to come over to our house, and by the next year you couldn't get him to shut up." Now, like Mo Pete a year ago, Mar Griff is the Illini's bellwether, their top rebounder (6.3 per game) and second-leading scorer (12.3) and shot blocker (1.3).
"Griff is a straightforward, get-to-the-point type of guy," says Illinois guard Cory Bradford, who helped bring down the Spartans with six three-pointers, then extended to 88 games his NCAA record with a trey by making two more against Purdue. "Serge is nothing but heart. Frank's got the killer instinct. Combined, it's a good nucleus."