It was, he says, a sign from God. Six months ago, while studying to become a licensed Pentecostal minister, Illinois senior forward Roger Powell Jr. nearly quit basketball. "I asked myself, Should I go full time into the ministry?" he says. That same day Powell met a woman who said his Scripture-studded speech at a YMCA in Joliet, Ill., his hometown, had changed her hoops-playing son's life. "That right there was my answer," says Powell in his stirring basso profundo."'You've been given the talent to communicate through basketball. Now go make something of it.'"
As messages go, the one Powell helped deliver last week was even clearer. By thrashing No. 1 Wake Forest 91--73 and upset-minded Arkansas 72--60, Illinois hurled a thunderbolt over the college hoops landscape. The 6--0 Illini, who vaulted to No. 1 on Monday, didn't just beat Wake and Gonzaga, their most prominent victims this season; they shattered their spirits, racing to leads of more than 30 points in both games. "I think the 2001 Lakers would have had problems with those guys," said Wake forward Jamaal Levy after Illinois embarrassed the Deacons.
Pundits knew that guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams would make up one of the nation's best backcourts, but the Illini's emergence has just as much to do with senior guard Luther Head and Powell, who brings more than a half-dozen teammates to weekly Bible-study sessions and is fondly referred to as the Rev. At week's end Head was scoring a team-high 15.7 points a game, while Powell was adding 13.7 points on heavenly 71% shooting. "The key word is that we've been a complete team," says second-year coach Bruce Weber. "We'll have five or six guys in double figures, and we do a good job passing the ball." Through last Saturday, Illinois had assists on a remarkable 70% of its baskets.
Like Powell, Head nearly quit the Illini earlier this year, offering to leave the team last January after being suspended for six games for various infractions (an alleged burglary for which no charges were filed and a citation for driving with a suspended license). Weber urged him to stay. "I told him I wanted him to change," Weber says. "He was embarrassed by [the incidents], but I think he's made big strides as a person." Now healthy after a series of injuries, Head has also shed his rep as little more than a dunking savant. "That's all that people saw of me: jumping, catching lobs and dunking," Head says. "Now that I'm more comfortable, I'm showing people what I can do."
No less explosive is Powell, a 6'6", 235-pound matchup nightmare whom Wake's Levy compares with Providence All-America Ryan Gomes. After leading the Illini with 19 points and 11 rebounds against Arkansas on Saturday--a day after he delivered a 7 a.m. speech to the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes chapter--Powell preached the gospel of restraint. "This was a springboard week for us," said the Rev, "but I always talk about the two H's: We have to stay humble and hungry."
If the Illini can do that, the task of defeating the new No. 1 will be a third H: hellacious.