Illinois Freshman point guard Dee Brown is only half-kidding when he says the toughest thing about playing college basketball is having to sit still during television timeouts. "I've got to keep moving," he says. Brown, who says he sleeps only five or six hours a night, may be a 6'0" bundle of nervous energy, but his spark has helped the Illini to an 8-0 start—their best since 1995-96. Brown turned in his finest performance of the season last Saturday, when he had 21 points, seven assists and five rebounds in then 12th-ranked Illinois's 85-70 pasting of No. 11 Missouri in their annual Braggin' Rights battle in St. Louis. "People ask me how I get Dee prepared for a big game like this," Illini coach Bill Self said afterward. "There's nothing to prepare him for. He lives for this."
Brown, who was recruited out of Proviso East High in Maywood, Ill., is certainly not lacking in confidence. He cites Sam Cassell and Gary Payton as his trash-talking point guard role models, and his eagerness to jaw with teammates has, according to Self, meant that practices are much more intense than they were last year. "I love it when everyone is talking to each other and going at it," Brown says. "The gym feels alive."
Illinois starts two other freshmen and a sophomore, which makes for frequent mistakes (including Browns team-high four turnovers against Missouri), but it compensates up for that with explosive scoring bursts: The Illini broke open the game against the Tigers with an 18-5 run early in the second half. Brown also displayed a veteran's toughness-playing through pain after he injured his left shoulder in a collision two minutes into the second half—that mirrored his team's effort The Tigers had been outrebounding opponents by 7.2 per game, but Illinois dominated them on the glass 42-32.
Brown has an ideal back-court complement in Deron Williams, another freshman who, like Brown, has a nice outside touch (43.5% from beyond the arc through Sunday) but thinks pass first. Brown (5.1 average) and Williams (4.4) were second and sixth, respectively, in the Big Ten in assists, and as a team the Illini led the conference in that category (19.3). Of course, freshmen will be freshmen. Last week during a team gathering at Self's house, Brown and Williams were having a dunk contest on a toy hoop in one of the guest rooms when Brown accidentally put a hole in a wall.
The youth movement has been particularly beneficial to the team's elder statesman, 6'10" senior forward Brian Cook, who is playing with a passion that was conspicuously absent during his first three seasons in Champaign. Cook, who at week's end was first in the Big Ten in scoring (20.0 average) and fourth in rebounding (7.3), has been going to the hole more aggressively and as a result was taking 6.5 foul shots a game, after averaging only 2.7 for his career. (In his 17-point performance against the Tigers he was 10 for 10 from the line.) "This is the first time since I was a senior in high school that my team needs me to be the first scoring option," he says. Cook also credits the exuberance of Brown and Williams for his more vigorous play. "I'm having more fun than I've ever had playing basketball," Cook says. "These young guys are goofy, but they're winners."