If sporting another man's jersey is the ultimate sign of athletic respect, then one of the gamers in Dee Brown's closet helps explain why Illinois has the most feared backcourt in America. Alongside the typical throwbacks-- Michael Jordan, George Gervin, Dick Butkus--hangs the blue number 5 of Brown's fellow Illini guard Deron Williams. Wait a second, Dee, you wear your teammate's jersey out in public? "Of course," says Brown, admiring his sidekick's threads like a Savile Row tailor. "Deron's my favorite point guard in college basketball." � Considering that the Stylin' Illini have two other popular stars at the position--Brown and his roommate Luther Head--it's no wonder Illinois has been the story of the season. At week's end the Illini had spent nine weeks at No. 1 and administered double-digit beatdowns to No. 7 Wake Forest, No. 17 Gonzaga and No. 18 Cincinnati. Inevitably, their 21-0 start and a weaker-than-usual Big Ten spawned the tantalizing (albeit burdensome) question, Can Illinois run the table? After all, if the Illini could survive Tuesday's road showdown with No. 12 Michigan State, they would most likely enter March with a chance to fulfill the prophecy on the poster hanging in Brown and Head's living room: illinois basketball: history in the making.
Coach Bruce Weber won't go there--not yet, even after his team had dusted Wisconsin 75-65 in Madison on Jan. 25, ending the nation's longest home court winning streak at 38 games. "I'm worried way more about winning the Big Ten than going undefeated," Weber says in his trademark screech. Perhaps, but the Illini's hegemony was plain to see: Including last Saturday's 89-66 annihilation of Minnesota in Champaign, only three opponents had lost by single digits to Weber's wrecking crew. "I haven't seen a team in 10 to 12 years swing the ball as quickly and efficiently as they do," says Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose Bulldogs allowed 24 assists on 34 baskets in an 89-72 loss to Illinois on Nov. 27. "If you're not playing against them, it's a joy to watch because it's how basketball should be played."
When it comes to maximizing smart passes and minimizing mistakes, the Illini are operating at a historic level indeed. In the four years since the NCAA started tracking team turnovers as an official stat, no Division I school has had an assist-to-turnover ratio better than 1.57. At week's end Illinois was clicking at an astonishing 1.80 (chart, page 56). "If we have one commandment, it's to pass the ball to the open man," says Weber. "Instead of shooting with a hand in your face, get it to the next guy, and the next time he'll reciprocate. Passing is a lost art, which is why I'm blessed with these guys."
While a few elite squads may have two All-America candidates at the guard positions--Duke, Kansas, North Carolina and Wake Forest come to mind--only the Illini have three. "The key to our success is that all of us are point guards who can distribute and shoot the ball," says Williams, who's so fanatical about assists (a Big Ten-leading 7.0 per game) that his coaches wish he'd look for his shot more often.
Led by Kendall Gill and Nick Anderson, the Flyin' Illini reached the 1989 Final Four with their skywalking one-on-one athleticism, but today's Stylin' Illini play with the ego-free ethic of comrades who wear each other's jerseys in their spare time. "It would be easy for Dee and Deron to say, 'Screw this, I'm going to get my numbers and go to the NBA,'" says forward Nick Smith. "But nobody's been like that." For Deron (rhymes with sharin'), setting up his teammates is nothing new: He performed the same task for Indiana gunner Bracey Wright when they played together at The Colony High outside Dallas. "I was always in his shadow, but I never had a problem with that," says Williams, who started casting his own last year, leading the Illini in points (14.0 per game) and assists (6.2).
Williams was the Big Ten preseason player of the year and is the backcourt trio's top all-around player, but Brown provides the most energy, sparking the punishing Illini fast break. "People love to see guys playing so unselfishly, so fluid," says Brown, whose charisma, orange headband-and-mouthpiece combo and unruly 'fraids (so dubbed by teammates to describe his half-'fro, half-braids hairstyle) make his the most recognizable face on the team.
Yet out of all the Stylin' Illini, the one having the best season is Brown's fellow Chicagoland native Head, who was leading the team in scoring (16.5 average) and who saved Illinois with 25 points in its closest call, a 73-68 overtime win against Iowa on Jan. 20. "It's good to learn that we can pull games out when we aren't playing our best," says Head, a.k.a. 4-Head (read the back of his jersey), a onetime devotee of the dunk who raised his three-point shooting accuracy from 34.3% in 2003-04 to 43.4% this season. "We have so much trust in each other that if we pass to the open guy, we know he'll knock the shot down," Head adds. "And the people taking the shots have confidence too."
Perhaps owing to their transcendent backcourt, the Illini's most overlooked improvements have taken place inside. "Our downfall last year was obvious," says Weber. "Teams just said, 'We're going inside, and you can't stop us.' So this season that was the Number 1 thing to address." A colorful quartet of forwards has shored up that weakness, including starters James Augustine, an indefatigable rebounder, and Roger Powell Jr., a 6'6" battler who's a licensed Pentecostal minister. The reserves are offensive glass specialist Jack (the Professor) Ingram, an Academic All-- Big Ten electrical engineering major, and Smith, a 7'2" perimeter drifter with a vaguely sinister nickname (Chainsaw) who unspools such gems as, "I like to think I'm kind of bipolar."
Mental states aside, the Illini interior has been good enough to win, if not necessarily to dominate. "The key is, all four guys are different," Weber says. "James is a runner who's athletic and has great bounce. Roger's undersized, but he's explosive and quick. Nick's got the skills of a European-type big man, and Jack is a rugged in-between guy who can rebound and shoot from 15 to 17 feet."
With the success the 48-year-old Weber has enjoyed in Champaign, and in five previous years at Southern Illinois (including a round-of-16 run in the 2002 NCAA tournament), it's hard to fathom why he was bypassed for head jobs all over the Midwest during 18 years as Gene Keady's assistant at Purdue. Oh, there were interviews, lots of them: Akron, Central Michigan, Drake, Miami ( Ohio) and Toledo, even Southeast Missouri State. But never an offer. "I tried to help him get a lot of jobs, but no one was ever smart enough to hire him," says Keady, who finally helped persuade Southern Illinois athletic director Jim Hart (the former NFL quarterback) to tap Weber for the Salukis' rebuilding project in 1998.