Illinois coach Bruce Weber must wear a protective boot for a few more weeks as he mends the ankle he broke on the morning of Nov. 28, the day the Fighting Illini traveled to North Carolina.
Chester Frazier, his backup point guard from Baltimore, is out with a thigh injury.
Dee Brown appears to be picking up speed, however, which is welcome news for the nation's somewhat surprising No. 9 team.
Brown was part of the three-guard attack that took Illinois to a 29-0 start and its first NCAA final last season. Deron Williams is starting for the Utah Jazz and Luther Head is getting 26 minutes a game for the Houston Rockets. Brown figured to join them in the NBA until he broke his right foot in a pre-draft camp last June.
The uncertainty that injury caused forced Williams to return to Champaign for his senior season. Minus Williams, a slick, steady ball-handler, Brown finally became the floor leader of a team that returned just one other starter, 6-foot-10 center James Augustine.
Brown leads the Fighting Illini in assists and scoring, but there have been nights when he's forced the issue.
In the only game it has played on an opponent's floor and a rematch of the 2005 NCAA final, Brown shot 6-for-19 as Illinois saw a 14-point lead at North Carolina shrink to two over the last six minutes in a 68-64 win. He made five of his 16 field-goal attempts when Illinois beat Georgetown by 10 last week, dropping his shooting percentage to .344.
Brown, who made nearly half of his attempts last season, was his old self in Illinois' most recent game, a 30-point rout of Oregon in Portland. He made five of eight three-pointers in a line of 26 points, seven assists and two turnovers. It was a welcome development from a charismatic player who was lukewarm to Weber when he replaced Bill Self in April 2003.
"We're not the same team as last year, but we have some positive traits," Weber said. "We defend very well, we rebound well, we have better inside presence and Dee Brown finally got going."
Frazier, who played for Herman Harried at Lake Clifton-Eastern High in 2003-04, had been playing 17 minutes a game until he tore a quad muscle in a Dec. 3 win over Xavier. He could be back in time for the Jan. 5 Big Ten Conference opener against Michigan State.
The Fighting Illini, which plays winless Coppin State in Champaign Sunday, figures to have a 14-0 record by the time it gets the Big Ten's other 2005 Final Four participant.
Princeton: no offense
After going to the NCAA tournament six times in the 1990s and again in 2004, Princeton went in the wrong direction last season, when Joe Scott filled the vacancy created by John Thompson's move to Georgetown.
For the first time since 1953, the school that gave us Bill Bradley and Pete Carril had a losing record in Ivy League play. Princeton was picked third in the Ivy behind Penn and Harvard this season, but there were warning signs in losses to Lafayette and Colgate. Then came Wednesday's 41-21 loss to Monmouth, which entered with a 1-7 record.
It was Princeton's lowest output since a 20-12 loss to Penn in 1936. The Tigers were stuck on 16 for nearly 15 minutes.
The Tigers have played their last two games without senior guard Scott Greenman, who's out with a back injury. He could return for Saturday's game at Wake Forest, and the Demon Deacons are also in a foul mood, since an 84-81 home loss to De Paul should get them bounced out of the Top 25.
My mistake: In this space last week, Texas coach Rick Barnes was taken to task for saying "Big 12 basketball is better than the ACC." Barnes was referring to how the leagues are perceived in his part of the country. ... La Salle is 5-0 for the first time since 1994. Darnell Harris, a sophomore guard out of Baltimore's St. Frances Academy, is playing 32 minutes a game as the Explorers' sixth man. ... George Washington, home tomorrow against Maryland-Eastern Shore, should move to 8-0 for the first time since it started the 1953-54 season 11-0. ... Texas A&M, the only unbeaten in the Big 12, will not leave its home floor until Jan. 3.
AROUND THE PERIMETER
GAME OF THE WEEK
No. 4 Louisville at No. 23 Kentucky, Tomorrow, 2 p.m. -- The nation's most heated nonconference rivalry makes a stop at Rupp Arena, where the Wildcats hope to make amends for recent nationally televised flops against North Carolina and Indiana. The Kentucky people who called Rick Pitino a traitor for returning to the state but going to Louisville probably wish they had him back. For all of the enmity among these programs, at least they play. Take out the 1980 and 2001 NCAA tournaments, and Georgetown and Maryland have met once since the 1970s.
TEAM OF THE WEEK
Indiana State -- It's feast or famine in Terre Haute. Larry Bird took the Sycamores to an epochal NCAA final in 1979, but they didn't return to the tournament until repeat appearances in 2000 and '01. Coach Royce Waltman's program had gone 33-85 over the last four seasons and was picked to finish in the bottom third of the Missouri Valley Conference, but it has a 5-0 record and a win at No. 18 Indiana.
Lowdown -- With the first semester coming to a close, it's the time of year when rosters make midseason additions. Towson's Dec. 21 home game against VMI will see Calvert Hall product Gary Neal in a Tigers uniform for the first time. He enrolled at the university last January, after a rocky exit from La Salle. Last month Neal was acquitted of the rape charge that got him dismissed from the Philadelphia school in the summer of 2004. The Atlantic 10 Rookie of the Year in 2002-03, Neal can play a number of roles for Towson.