Sophomore guard Frank Williams has a blank stare on the basketball court--not a warrior's glare but a tabula rasa. It makes one wonder where his intensity and creativity come from when he takes over a game--and where that intensity goes when it's gone.
Williams seemed truly bipolar in the Fighting Illini's last two games of the season, the Midwest semifinals and finals of the NCAA basketball tournament. In the third-round game against Kansas he scored a career-high 30 points, almost all of them within the normal scheme of the Illinois offense. Against Arizona in the Midwest final--the game to determine the last of the Final Four--Williams made a miserable 3 of 15 shots from the floor and took only two free throws, though the referees were blowing whistles like cops in a street brawl. Williams, the great reason to hope that the Illini had finally changed their ways and gotten beyond their reputation for wilting under pressure, wilted the worst in the end. His old Peoria Manual High School teammates, Sergio McClain and Marcus Griffin, shot a combined one of 11 for a total of three points, and Williams's fellow sophomore starter Brian Cook got hit with early foul trouble and scored only four points before fouling out. But Williams was supposed to be the one who would lead the Illini past their old demons. He turned out to be more afflicted by them than anyone.
It came as something of a shock. The Illini had brushed aside their first two NCAA opponents, quieting critics who'd questioned their mental toughness. The opening game was nothing to brag about. They beat Northwestern State, which became the last team added to the field by beating Winthrop in what was termed an "entry" game before the tournament proper began. The second game, however, looked like a full-fledged augury of how this year's team would differ from teams past. As they had against Northwestern State, Illinois' forwards began by bombing from outside against Charlotte, and when the shots went in they were a knockdown punch. It's critical to hit threes in the NCAA tournament, where outside shooting is required to beat the zone defenses allowed in college, and where a hot shooter is the great equalizer between teams of unequal ability. But when Illinois' big men are hitting them their effect is doubled. One would figure Cory Bradford, who put together a DiMaggio-esque streak of 88 straight games hitting a three-point shot, to be the prime bomber, but Bradford is the most stereotypically Illini of the Illinois players: that is, he's streaky, prone to disappear under pressure, and gets in a funk if the threes he fires up early in a game don't go down. When Cook, Griffin, and McClain--the starting frontline--open by hitting long shots, they draw their defenders away from the basket, giving point guard Williams room to maneuver and Bradford an easier time finding his spots. That was how things worked against Northwestern State and Charlotte: the big men delivered the body blows to soften the opponent, and then Williams sliced them open.
Yet in both cases the Illini defense triggered it all. Northwestern State was down 10-0 and out of the tournament before it knew what was happening, but Charlotte had legitimate hopes of an upset; in fact, Charlotte was a popular pick against Illinois in NCAA pools. Yet the Illini put them down ten points right away too, then unleashed a stifling defense to keep them from getting back in the game. The key was Griffin, who put the clamps on Rodney White, the rookie who'd become Charlotte's late-season catalyst after returning from an injury. Griffin outmuscled White, and he got help from a series of unpredictable double-teaming schemes that flummoxed the freshman.
As the Illini advanced to the Sweet Sixteen round last weekend, defense was the constant in their game. Last Friday the Illini played Kansas, another tall team with talented outside players. It was the rare tournament game called tightly by the referees, who usually adopt a let-them-play attitude during the NCAAs. (Unfortunately, this proved to be just a hint of what was to come.) Blustery TV analyst Bill Walton said early on that a tight game would favor Kansas, but he hadn't figured on the depth of the Illini. With both teams' starting forwards facing early foul trouble, the Illini simply brought in Robert Archibald, Damir Krupalija, and the ever scrappy Lucas Johnson. Kansas had to bring a gangling seven-foot center off the bench, and he was overmatched.
Still, it wasn't just the style and tempo of the game that favored the Illini; it was their defense. They came out with their big men bombing--and missing this time--and Kansas scored the first two baskets of the game. But by overplaying the passing lanes and extending their defense out to near the half-court area, the Illini turned three straight steals into baskets, the last a three-point play by Williams. Almost midway through the first half, Kansas found itself in the confounding position of shooting 67 percent from the field but down six points. They had committed ten turnovers and made two of a mere three shots.
With all the bumping and grinding, Williams came to the fore as the one person moving at regular speed while everyone else floundered in slow motion. Everything he did flowed out of the game; it wasn't him taking control, it was him taking what there was to be taken, which was ample. Cook speared a tipped pass, and knowing Williams was off to the races heaved it the length of the floor in the general direction of the basket; Williams ran under it and redirected the high bounce into the hoop. Bradford drove and then passed back to Williams for an open three, and Johnson did the same--Williams hitting the shot smooth and graceful with elbows high to make it 33-23. As the half ended, he redeemed the one forced play he'd made all game. After driving down the right side of the lane into traffic, the ball pinched against his right hip, he hurled it up as if he'd pulled it out of his pocket, and it dropped through the net with the inevitability of a pebble down a well to give the Illini a 41-29 halftime lead.
"Kansas shoots 58 percent and they're getting hammered here," Walton gushed during the intermission.
The second half was very much the same, with Johnson frolicking like a looter in a riot to hit a couple of threes on his way to a 15-point game. But it was Williams again who hit the critical shot. Cook fouled out and the Illini offense began to sputter as Kansas crawled back into the game. Fearing Williams on the drive, Kansas played off him, so he hit an open three off the dribble--bang--off the back of the rim and through the hoop. That made it 65-57. Moments later, with Kansas now playing him tighter, he drove past his man, put up a shot, missed, and converted his own rebound to put Illinois up 68-59 with two minutes to play. The Illini spread the floor and Williams found McClain cruising unmolested down the baseline for the dunk that put the game away. Illinois was undeniably helped by Kansas's lack of depth; the Jayhawks wilted under the physical play, with Nick Collison twice missing a pair of free throws after the Illini were called for intentional fouls. The Illini made their foul shots at the end to finish 80-64.
Yet that Illinois team disappeared Sunday against Arizona. The Illini had played them twice already this season, losing in an early tournament in Hawaii, beating them in a brutal contest at the United Center. This time, Arizona coach Lute Olson had a new wrinkle: he put tall swingman Richard Jefferson on Williams. Williams dried up and the Illini offense went with him. Previously the Illini had used their defense to ignite the offense, so it didn't help that Williams was getting torched at the other end by Gilbert Arenas, who scored 13 of Arizona's first 15 points as they took a 15-9 lead, sat down for a breather, and came back in to hit a quick three-pointer to make it 21-10.
The Illini scrambled back, slowly turning the momentum with a toughened defense--Williams finally got a grip on Arenas--and a grinding offense, but none of it was pretty, except maybe Bradford, who surprised everyone by playing splendidly. The other surprise was Archibald, who with the rest of the Illinois front line in a funk or foul trouble or both scored a career-high 25 points.
Yet Archibald's point total illustrates how discombobulated the Illini's offense was. They cut the Arizona lead to 34-30 at the half, and actually went ahead 49-48 and 54-53 on a pair of threes by Johnson. But with the game tied at 56 and seven minutes to play, Arizona--helped by some calls from the refs--began to pull away. Throughout the season Williams had rallied his team at this point of the game, but here--just as in the Big Ten tournament game against Indiana--he didn't pull it together. The critical moment came when he broke free off a screen to drive down the lane for an open slam dunk, but smacked the two-handed jam hard off the back rim. Archibald came down with the rebound and immediately passed the ball back to Williams, who had circled around for an open three. But he missed that shot as well. Arizona ran it the other way and scored to go up 72-62, and the Illini never got closer than three points after that, though Bradford's threes kept them in the game. He finished with 22 points.
The final was 87-81. An Illinois fan could point to the disparity in foul shots. Arizona took 56 free throws to the Illini's 25, outscoring them by 23. While that disparity was exaggerated down the stretch when the Illini started fouling to get the ball back--six of their players fouled out--Arizona had already taken ten more foul shots midway through the second half. I think the Illini were paying for their image in the media, where they'd been painted as thugs with Johnson the leader of the gang. (He got hit with some ticky-tack fouls, including one on a three-point shot that even Walton questioned.) But the media are part of a tournament like this one. The Bulls used the media to their advantage any number of times in their six-championship run. Great teams use all the weapons at their disposal. The Illini haven't reached that level.
So they fell victim to their own character flaws. They were tougher than they had been, but it was punk tough. Arizona, like Indiana, outrebounded the vaunted Illinois front line. "The toughest team won," Arizona center Loren Woods crowed afterward, and it was hard to argue. The Illini's old flaw, the tendency to crack under pressure, emerged anew. It was reminiscent of a fable Orson Welles was so fond of telling, about the scorpion crossing a river on a frog and stinging the frog in midstream.
"Why did you do that?" the dying frog said.
"Because it is my nature," said the scorpion, sinking along with him.
And so it was with the Illini and with Williams. So much for the tabula rasa.