Illini survive for one more night
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- For seven star-kissed weeks, being No. 1 was a lark for Illinois. A joy ride. A gee-this-is-fun novelty for a program that had previously held the top ranking for only two weeks in its 100-year history.
Now, after Inauguration Day for W. nearly became an Impeachment Day L for the Illini, the No. 1 newbies are learning how difficult life can be on top.
"I knew it wasn't going to be that easy all year," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said after his team gasped past No. 24 Iowa at home, 73-68 in overtime. "You get into the league, and look at the other scores."
Until Thursday night, Illinois had been impervious. It had enjoyed a stress-free 18-game romp. The Illini had won 16 of 18 by double digits, and none by fewer than six. Their three previous victories over ranked opponents had come by 17 over Gonzaga, 18 over Wake Forest and 22 over Cincinnati.
"People have got to realize, we were so far ahead of everyone early on because of our veteran group," Weber said. "... Now they've caught up with us a little bit. Now we've got to make a move."
Weber made the first move after the game -- a psychological move. He pronounced the No. 1 team in the nation an underdog in its next game, at Wisconsin next Tuesday, where the Badgers are working on a nation-best, 38-game winning streak.
"No one's beat us," Weber acknowledged. "But no one's won there."
The coach clearly would enjoy a brief cessation from the Eternal Favorite role. Weber is hardly a guy accustomed to coaching under klieg lights.
In his second year at Illinois, he spent the previous five years in the Missouri Valley Conference at Southern Illinois. Before that he served 18 years as an assistant to Gene Keady at Purdue -- tucked well into the shadow cast by Bob Knight.
Now he and his team are the Flavors of the Month in college basketball. They drew an even larger media contingent to Assembly Hall Thursday night than when then-No. 1 Wake Forest visited in December, as the nation finally pulls its gaze west from Tobacco Road.
No wonder Weber described the buzz around his program as "a hype," "a craze," and "a circus atmosphere."
"And now it's nationwide," he added. "Maybe it's built a little pressure on us, I'm not sure. Maybe it's just that part of the season."
Whether it was pressure Illinois felt or whether it was the Iowa defense, the Illini were uncharacteristically shaky Thursday night in their own building. They shot a wretched 32.8 percent from the field -- including a 3-for-21 nightmare by big men Roger Powell and James Augustine -- and somehow still won. But even more surprising was their shoddy ball handling.
Illinois has been the ultimate good-hands team, entering the game with 178 more assists than turnovers. "The most phenomenal stat I've seen in coaching," Iowa's Steve Alford called it. "That's just unbelievable."
The two combined for fewer field goals (five) than fouls (seven) or turnovers (eight). They were 1-for-7 from three-point range and missed three crucial free throws that could have iced the game in regulation.
Fortunately for the Illini, they have another man in the backcourt. His name is Luther Head, and he's risen from third wheel to lead gun. He's the MVP of this team -- and perhaps the nation -- to date.
The team's leading scorer describes his role simply: "I do what I can do when I can do it." Thursday night, he had to do it all.
He played a career-high 42 minutes, leaving him "ready to go home and get to bed." He had to bail out the Illini offensively, scoring 25 points and making eight of their 22 field goals and four of their six three-pointers. He had to get on the glass, pulling down six rebounds.
And he had to take on the toughest defensive assignment of the night for most of the game, chasing Iowa's versatile Pierre Pierce all over the floor. Pierce got his, scoring 22 points, but Head won several battles himself. He had a career-high six steals, helped force Pierce into seven turnovers, limited him to just two trips to the foul line and allowed him only one made field goal in the final 15 minutes of play.
"Luther was huge," Weber said. "Not only did he make shots, he defended Pierce down the stretch."
Illinois' rise to the top of the rankings dovetails neatly with Head's rise from problematic younger player to take-charge senior. Last year Head was suspended for the first two games for his alleged role in a campus break-in, then missed two other games for a traffic infraction. He was living way too fast on the court as well.
"He would go so fast and just jump in the air, and play wildly," Weber said. "He's really slowed his game down and let things come. He's just worked on his game. He's done what you should do as a college player -- make improvement every year."
Along the way Head has accomplished one of the most underrated feats in basketball: dramatically improving his jump shot. The world is full of great athletes who are billed as future successes, "when they learn how to shoot." Problem is, it's a tougher skill to hone than most folks realize.
Head has done it. He made 16 threes in 35 games as a freshman, 28 in 25 games as a sophomore and 49 in 29 games last year. This year he's already made 59 of them and his connecting on 44.4 percent of his attempts from that range.
"The way my teammates and coaches look at me is different now," Head said. "You take shots and hear people say, 'That's good' as soon as you shoot it, that helps your confidence. Having the confidence I have now, it's easier taking the shots I'm taking."
Now Illinois will find itself taking the best shot from everyone it faces. Being No. 1 was a lark until Thursday night, when the pressure arrived. It won't get any easier the rest of the way.
Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com