Illini rolling because they are unselfish

It is, admittedly, something of a trick question. Can you name the University of Illinois' leading scorer? Just who, exactly, leads the nation's top-ranked team in points per game? It has to be guard Deron Williams, doesn't it? Williams, after all, may have been the biggest beneficiary of Bruce Weber's arrival in Champaign. Comfortable in the offense Weber brought from Southern Illinois, Williams blossomed as a sophomore. He entered this season with high expectations, as the junior was named Big Ten preseason player of the year. Nope. Not Williams. OK, well if not Williams, then it has to be guard Dee Brown, right? Brown bounces around the court in non-stop motion. He's the fastest player on one of the fastest teams in college basketball. So he's a natural to score points for Illinois. Nope. Not Brown either. Instead, Illinois' leading scorer is the third member of Weber's guard trio: Luther Head. It's probably fitting because Head sort of personifies this Illini team -- he shoots the ball well, he passes and he defends. He's not a superstar, but he's a very good player without a glaring weakness. As the weeks have past since Illinois' 91-73 victory over then-No. 1 Wake Forest on Dec. 1, there seems to be building national skepticism of the Illini. Despite remaining as one of the nation's four undefeated teams, Illinois actually saw their number of first-place votes in both the writers' and coaches' polls decrease last week, before North Carolina lost at Wake. (Disclosure: This AP voter has voted Illinois first every week since the victory over the Deacons). Despite UNC's stumble (and now Wake's loss at Florida State Tuesday night), the reality is pretty clear: There are certainly people out there who remain skeptical of the Illini. Why? The reasons seem pretty simple. The Illinois offense, while very good, might not match up with North Carolina's turbo-charged attack. Neither of the Illini big men -- Roger Powell Jr. or James Augustine -- are as difficult to defend as Kansas' Wayne Simien. And while the Illinois guards are very good, there seem to be people who wonder if any of them can take over the way Wake Forest's Chris Paul can. All of the above statements may be true. At least some of them probably are. But those statements all overlook the biggest advantage Illinois has over the Tar Heels, Jayhawks and Demon Deacons. Illinois, simply put, is the best team among this season's college hoops fab four because they play like kindergarteners. They share, they laugh and they trust each other. They clearly were in attendance when the teacher talked about playing nice with others. While it sounds simplistic, it doesn't happen nearly enough in college basketball. College coaches might not talk about it when the television cameras are on, but privately many will tell you that the ability to manage personalities and massage egos is sometimes as important as drawing up a play to get the ball into the post. Every year, there are teams derailed because some upperclassman is upset with a freshman starting in his place. Or because a sophomore is more concerned with getting enough shots to leave for the NBA. Or because some overzealous parent is undermining the coach. Illinois, at least to this point, has little of that. That's not to say that Brown and Williams haven't considered leaving for the NBA, but this Illinois team plays like they don't care who does the scoring. For the guys in orange, the best shot is the open one. Consider: Williams and Head each scored 20 in Illinois' rout of Gonzaga. Powell scored 19 against Wake forest. Head had 23 against Oregon. "I love Illinois," Minnesota coach Dan Monson said. "I just think they have all the ingredients going right now. They are as unselfish as any star-studded team I've seen in college basketball for a while. Their assist ratio to baskets is unbelievable." Iowa coach Steve Alford has spent this week trying to figure out a way to slow the Illini entering Thursday night's game at Champaign. His conclusion after watching Illinois? Dee Brown is a great player who doesn't care about his stat line. "They spread the thing around," Alford said. "When you have very good talent and you can still play unselfish and not care who gets it, you're going to win a lot of games. Dee's a kid who could probably get 30 a night, but they're better if he does some other things. That's a credit to him." Already this season, four different Illinois players have been named Big Ten player of the week. No school had ever had more than three different players earn the award in the same season. Considering that Williams hasn't been named conference player of the week, odds are pretty good that Illinois will end the season with five different players earning the honor. Bruce Weber seemingly has no petulant whiners to deal with, nobody who's going to go all selfish on him and throw up a 3-for-20 performance. Now that sometimes-moody Illini center Nick Smith has seemingly grown up, the biggest drama this season in Champaign has involved the status of forward Brian Randle. His problem? He broke a bone his hand after punching a wall in practice. Meanwhile, the Illini broke the 1989 Flyin' Illini's record for best start in school history, winning three games against ranked opponents by at least 17 points apiece along the way. While scoring and shot totals and assists tell much of the story of Illinois unselfishness, it is also told in two more unlikely areas. Turnovers and defense. Even though the Illini play at a fast pace and average 81.9 points per game, Illinois doesn't turn the ball over. For the season, the Illini have averaged only 10.7 turnovers per game, a number that's extremely low for a team that likes to push the ball up the floor. The Illini are fourth nationally in turnovers per game, trailing three teams that like to play the game more on city streets than in the passing lane on the Interstate: Air Force, Temple and Butler. On the other end of the floor, Weber has the Illini playing very good defense. Only three teams have reached the 70-point mark against Illinois and opponents are averaging 62.2 points per game. While that number may not seem exceptional, it is impressive considering how many possessions there are in an Illinois game. So what do turnovers and defense have to do with teamwork? They both involve trust. When the Illinois players make a pass, the thrower knows the receiver will catch it and the receiver knows it will be in the correct spot. On defense, it works two ways. If the Illinois players take a chance and get beat, they know someone will help. Secondly, they know that if they help, someone will help them. It does sound simple, but it just doesn't happen enough. Why is Illinois the best team? Because they play like they're 5-year-olds.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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