Small Ball

28-0 Illinois rides high with a three-guard lineup, a strategy that tipped off with the 1974-75 Terps

February 25, 2005|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

Bigger doesn't mean better for Illinois, which has followed three outstanding guards, none taller than 6 feet 3, to a 28-0 record, 12 weeks atop the polls and a serious run at history.

Major college basketball's last unbeaten was Indiana, in 1976. As convenient as it is to seize that bit of Big Ten inspiration, the stylistic muses are harder to find for the Fighting Illini, but one can be found in the same era.

A recent Sports Illustrated article traces the current emphasis on perimeter play to Arizona, where Lute Olson took a three-guard attack to the 1994 Final Four, but that view is a tad shortsighted.

While Patrick Ewing and David Robinson gave it the old college try a generation ago, now the best young big men play for pay. What were once power forwards are now centers.

When and where did that migration begin?

A seminal tear in basketball's fabric occurred 30 winters ago, after a pioneering teen named Moses forced a bold stroke by a coach called Lefty. Dee Brown, Luther Head and Deron Williams, meet Brad Davis, Mo Howard, John Lucas and the fast-breaking 1974-75 Maryland Terrapins, who proved that a team could go small and win.

A football offense must put seven men on the line of scrimmage. Baseball managers are required to fill out a lineup card. Basketball coaches face no such restrictions, and have always used quickness to counter the other guy's "bigs."

Before he became a coaching legend at Mount St. Mary's, Jim Phelan started for La Salle in 1951, three years before its NCAA title. "We played three guards all the time," Phelan said.

Quick vs. big

John Wooden began his UCLA dynasty with no starter taller than 6-5. His first NCAA title team, in 1964, used a zone press and 21 points a game from 6-1 Gail Goodrich, who played for the Los Angeles Lakers and is now an NBA TV analyst.

"Coach Wooden wanted as much size as possible," Goodrich said, "but he wasn't going to sacrifice size for quickness."

Wooden then was blessed with the most dominant center the college game has seen, as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar - then Lew Alcindor - led the Bruins to three straight titles. His last came in 1969, one week after the Terps hired Lefty Driesell, who vowed to make Maryland "the UCLA of the East."

In 1974, the last season the NCAA tournament accepted only conference champions, Driesell's best team to that point lost an epochal Atlantic Coast Conference tournament final to North Carolina State in overtime. It was a hollow end to the Len Elmore-Tom McMillen era, but Driesell remained upbeat, because he was getting 6-11 Moses Malone, maybe the best prospect ever signed by the ace recruiter.

Maryland's plans, however, were disrupted when Malone signed with the Utah Stars in the old American Basketball Association. The NBA accepted the occasional "hardship" case out of college at the time, but Malone's step was revolutionary.

The inside force who was expected to finally put the Terps over the top never suited up for Maryland, but Driesell's cupboard wasn't bare. Lucas was one of the nation's best guards. Howard, a junior classmate, was another fine athlete, and Davis was about to show that Malone wasn't the only remarkable member of the freshman class.

Unresolved was how the three guards would be deployed, which hasn't been an issue for the nation's current No. 1 team.

Illinois' seeds

The seeds for Illinois' perfection were planted two years ago, when Bruce Weber was coaching Southern Illinois and Bill Self had to rebuild the Illini's backcourt.

With Brown and Williams, the 2002-03 Illini notched 90 freshman starts, easily a Big Ten high since the conference began tracking that statistic in 1997.

Williams, a stocky Texan who fed Indiana shooter Bracey Wright in high school, was installed at the point. Brown, the 6-footer with the Carmelo Anthony braids, took over at wing. Head, like Brown a native of Chicago, was then a sophomore, and averaged 20 minutes despite missing time with a pelvic injury.

Self replaced Roy Williams at Kansas, Weber took over in Champaign and installed a motion offense. In December 2003, while the Illini were still warming to him, Weber committed to the three-guard lineup. Illinois lost at Wisconsin a month later, but since then has run off 24 straight regular-season conference wins.

The Illini players slap Weber five when they come out, which isn't often. Multiple skills are required to break into his eight-man rotation. Junior center James Augustine is the top rebounder with 7.1 per game, but Head and Williams, both 6-3, combine for 7.3.

"When Coach got here, he said that if we want to start three guards, we've got to rebound," Williams said. "I was the tallest person on my high school team. I played the point, but I guarded centers, did whatever I had to. Luther is the same way, and he's athletic enough to get five or six rebounds if that's what's needed. There really haven't been any big adjustments for us. We clicked as soon as we got in there together."

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