- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 9, 2004

Illinois is poised to open champagne in Champaign this spring to celebrate a trip to the Final Four. Anything less would be a disappointment.

The Illini are ranked No.1, propelled in large part by the finest backcourt in the country: Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Luther Head.

Those three lay claim to that delineation Dec.1, when the trio outclassed then-No.1 Wake Forest’s terrific guard duo of Chris Paul and Justin Gray in a surprisingly easy 91-73 victory.

“Our three guards combined we feel are as good as anyone’s,” coach Bruce Webber said. “Wake only has two. We have three guards, and they all complement each other.”

So much so that the terms “point” and “shooting” guard don’t apply. The 6-foot Brown and the 6-3 Williams finished 1-2 in the Big Ten in assists last season, and the three combined for 23 of Illinois’ 27 assists against Wake Forest. Brown finished with 16 points. Williams scored just eight but dished out 11 assists. Head, a 6-3 senior who leads the team with 15.9 points, scored 16 on 6-for-14 shooting.

Paul (10 points) and Gray (11) combined to make seven of 27 shots for the Deacons.

Considering those two had problems against Illinois (7-0), Georgetown (3-1) understand its challenge tonight when the Illini come to MCI Center. The young Hoyas have won three in a row but haven’t faced a team — or individual players — of this caliber.

“Deron Williams and Dee Brown, I’ve known them since high school,” Hoyas forward Brandon Bowman said. “I really like Deron and Dee together. Deron is a player who’s 215 and 6-3, all muscle, and played point in high school, so he doesn’t mind having the ball a lot.

“Dee is quick, fast, a court leader with court vision. He shoots when you leave him open. He goes to the basket.”

On Monday afternoon, a few hours before the Illini’s game against Chicago State, the team learned it had been ranked No.1 for the first time since 1989 and the third time in school history.

The veteran team — every significant contributor returned from a squad that went 26-7 last season, won the Big Ten title and reached the Sweet 16 — took it in stride.

“There was no celebration,” Head told the Illinois student newspaper. “We didn’t jump for joy or anything. We just took it like, ‘OK, we’re No.1. Let’s stay there.’ We didn’t throw balloons in the air or anything like that.”

For the Illini to be able to celebrate like that in March, they might need more consistency in the frontcourt.

Power forward Roger Powell Jr. is athletic but a tad undersized at 6-6. James Augustine, a 6-10 junior center, hasn’t tapped his potential. When Webber decides to go big, he inserts 7-2 senior Nick Smith, whose career has been marked by inconsistency.

If the Illini’s big men can be productive, there’s no reason to believe an orange caravan won’t be making the short drive from Champaign to St. Louis, site of this season’s Final Four.

“I talked to our players before the [Chicago State] game that they should appreciate the opportunity to be No.1 and that they deserved it, but we can’t be satisfied,” Webber said. “If we don’t make strides, all of that could crash fast. I don’t want to see them play with fear to lose.

“Somebody is going to beat us, and we’ll watch film to see how we can get better.”

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