- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 26, 2005

ROSEMONT, Ill. — There’s the “poster boy” from Chicago whose orange mouthpiece can’t mask a disarming smile. The point guard is a quiet Texan who never paid attention to Illinois until it recruited him. Their backcourt partner took the Fighting Illini’s scholarship because it was his only offer.

Top-ranked Illinois (35-1), which meets Arizona (30-6) in today’s Chicago Regional final, might have the nation’s best backcourt in part because it includes three potent weapons — arguably the most imposing triple-header since Cerberus guarded the gates of the underworld.

Dee Brown is the energy, Deron Williams the soul and Luther Head the dagger of Illinois’ backcourt. Brown and Williams both scored 21 points in Illinois’ 77-63 victory over Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Thursday’s regional semifinal, but it was Head’s 3-pointer that sealed the win.

“Illinois has so many guys that can take that last shot you don’t know who to get up on defensively,” Arizona guard Salim Stoudamire said yesterday.

The trio might be Illinois’ best backcourt ever. Better than Derek Harper and Bruce Douglas, two players on Illinois’ all-century team, in 1982. Better than the 1951 tandem of All-American Don Sunderlage and Rodney Fletcher that led the Illini to a national third-place finish. Even better than the 1989 “Flyin’ Illini” backcourt led by Kendall Gill.

Fast, versatile and interchangeable — their internal battles extend to poker, ping pong, video games and even a pie-eating contest. They compete over everything but glory. Brown may be known as the “One Man Fast Break,” but the Illini are on pace to shatter the NCAA assist/turnover ratio record with nearly twice as many assists as turnovers.

With a pair of standout point guards in Brown and Williams, the Illini have had no trouble sharing the ball or finding someone to carry the offense. Head scored five points and Brown added eight during a 13-3 stretch against Milwaukee. Williams then scored six of Illinois’ next eight points. All five starters finished in double figures.

“They complement each other,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “Their egos don’t get in the way.”

Somehow, personalities haven’t clashed despite three months of non-stop publicity. Brown recently was on the cover of Sports Illustrated and was named the Big Ten’s player of the year. He has scored in double figures 28 times this year despite averaging only 13.4 points. Still, Brown often deferred to Williams on the dais.

“You have to pay attention when you’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated,” Brown said, “But we’re all playing for the same thing.”

Williams, a Texas native, has 22 double-digit scoring games and averages 12.4 points. Brown may be gregarious, but it’s Williams who tempers the team’s tension.

“Deron’s a clown,” Weber said. “He’s always making fun of you. If you’re wearing something that doesn’t match, you’re going to hear about it for a long time. … We need all of them, but [Deron] steers the boat.”

Illinois’ leading scorer is Head (15.6), whose lone scholarship offer came from the Illini. Though he receives less acclaim than his fellow guards. Head, who has nursed a sore hamstring since Monday, possesses a dangerous outside shot that keeps double teams off Brown and Williams. His one- or two-word answers to reporters’ questions keep the attention on his sidekicks.

“Luther likes being in the shadows,” Weber said.

Why isn’t Illinois a prohibitive favorite entering the Elite Eight though it entered the NCAA tournament ranked No.1 after losing just once in the regular season? There’s something about big men that grabs respect. Even on teams fueled by their backcourts, guards are used to supporting roles.

“When you look at us, it’s probably not that intimidating,” Weber said. “It’s old-school basketball and that’s not impressive to people. We don’t have a lot of spectacular plays.”

Just a lot of spectacular players.

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