- Andy Katz, ESPN Senior Writer
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Dee Brown could be facing his most critical month as a basketball player.
He's nursing a stress fracture above his ankle that could threaten the start of his junior season, a year that he and the rest of his Illinois teammates believe could end in St. Louis in April as national champs.
But if Brown (13.3 ppg, 4.5 apg) is going to elevate his game to a professional level, at least in this country, he must learn how to play without always relying on his speed.
It's a tall order, especially for a smaller point guard who has always made up for his height, listed at 6 foot, with a reliance on changing speeds and blowing past a defender.
But if there is ever time for Brown to diversify his game, it's in the coming weeks when he won't be as nimble.
"His whole life, he's totally relied on his speed to beat people down court,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "But guys are starting to catch up with him. We saw it in the Olympics, that the best athletes don't win, the best players on the best teams win. He's got to become more of a speed demon and become a smarter player.''
That's why the coaching staff is stressing that Brown becomes even more of a student of the game while he slowly works his way back into basketball shape. Brown has locked down for most of the summer, occasionally participating in pickup games like he did at the Jordan Camp in Santa Barbara, Calif., in August. That one stint, especially in a game against Michael Jordan, might have set back his recovery.
"One of my goals is to play at a higher level,'' Brown said. "I'm not one of the most talented guys and because of my size, how I play is I have to be faster. But if I'm injured, then I can't play at that level.''
That's why the staff will encourage Brown to be more selective with his speed and to ensure he becomes a higher percentage shooter. There is no scientific evidence that overuse led to his stress fracture. Backcourt mate Deron Williams (14 ppg, 6.2 apg) had the same hectic schedule from freshman year to a summer playing USA Basketball to a Scandinavian summer trip with the Illini to a run to the Sweet 16 last March.
But it appeared Brown's body started to wear down. He wasn't able to use his speed to his advantage all the time.
"I was in real pain,'' Brown said. "(The ankle) was so painful during the tournament. We were having so much fun so I wasn't trying to think about the pain. But it was nagging and throbbing. I didn't use it as an excuse and tried to keep it under wraps.''
Brown's shooting numbers fluctuated throughout last season. Early, he had games like 3-of-17 from the field against North Carolina, 2-of-9 against Providence, 2-of-11 against Memphis and 1-of-8 against Illinois-Chicago. But he then finished stronger, despite the injury, going 8-of-17 in the NCAA first-round win over Murray State, 6-of-12 in a second-round win over Cincinnati and 6-of-10 in a Sweet 16 loss to Duke.
"His shooting percentages improved over the year, so too did his assist-to-turnover ratio, but the thing we'll keep emphasizing to him is that this may help him play at a slower speed,'' Weber said. "He has to improve the old-man part of his game (the skills) if he is going to be effective.''
Brown has already checked his ego during his injury. He doesn't want to redshirt, and he says any talk of that is complete fantasy. If he can't compete by November, Weber said redshirting Brown is a real possibility, but no one believes that will be the case. Brown spent the past week doing initial shooting drills after spending the previous three weeks simply working in the weight room and on the exercise bike.
He took inventory of his workout regimen over the summer by doing an independent study report on overscheduling children at a young age. He said he interviewed a few kids and spoke to parents about the project. He saw that children put too much strain on their bodies, something he had done to himself. That kind of self-analysis brought him to realize that he can't do everything.
"I played so much basketball that it took a toll on my body,'' Brown said. "I played with no breaks. When I went to the Jordan Camp (in early August), my competitiveness took over and I wanted to play against him. I didn't stop and then I had to stop playing ball (the last few weeks). If I don't play basketball anymore I know I played on the same court with him (Jordan). That was fun. But I was trying to sit out at the camp.''
Realizing that he is human and can't play some times, even when he's hurting, is another sign of his maturity. So, too, is promoting his teammates.
Brown said there is enough talent to keep the Illini in the national title chase, even if he's limited early in the season. Clearly, the Illini must have a healthy Brown if they're going to be a Final Four contender, let alone the preseason favorites in the Big Ten. But Brown is confident Luther Head (11 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Richard McBride (3.2 ppg) and, of course, his running mate Williams are talented enough to keep opponents at bay during his recovery.
"They can do it easily without me,'' Brown said. "Deron is that much better and so too is Luther Head. He's going to surprise people. If we're focused, we can beat anybody.''
Weber isn't downplaying Brown's or Williams' enthusiasm. He said the team's depth is different than a year ago. Brown and Williams form one of the top backcourts in the country, according to Weber (no argument here). But "a lot of people forget about Luther Head.''
Weber told Head this week that he doesn't have to be "the other guy with Dee and Deron.'' He said he could be the "guy" and has been the best player in the practice at times over the past year.
"Dee Brown is definitely special and brings a different element,'' Weber said. "But we have really good depth.''
Illinois will continue to lean on its perimeter, especially in one of the best backcourt matchups of the season when it hosts Wake Forest on Dec. 1 in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. But the difference between the Sweet 16 and the Final Four could be the improved play of frontcourt players Nick Smith (6.8 ppg, 3.2 rpg), James Augustine (9.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg), Warren Carter (3.7 ppg), Brian Randle (2.7 ppg), Roger Powell (11.6 ppg, 5 rpg) and Jack Ingram (2.2 ppg).
"We're more ready this year to handle (an injury) than we were a year ago,'' said Williams, who was out with a broken jaw for a spell last season. "We had so many other problems, like learning to play for a new coach (in Weber).
"I'm not worried about (Brown). He'll be back. I think we can win it all. I'm not sounding overconfident, but we have everyone back who has been through tough games.''
If Brown is the toughest one of them all, not by playing with pain but by competing as a smarter, more versatile guard at various speeds, then the Illini could go on a magical run. Brown's mental preparation this month could be as important as his rehab if a berth in St. Louis is a realistic goal.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com. His Weekly Word on college basketball is updated Fridays throughout the year.