CHAMPAIGN — Deron Williams, who made the biggest basket in University of Illinois history, was back on campus Monday.
Illinois hasn’t had a parade of recent NBA stars dropping by for practice or a locker room pep talk, mainly because right now there’s only two active players in the league — Meyers Leonard of Portland and Brandon Paul of San Antonio.
Williams, who was the third overall pick in the 2005 NBA Draft, played for 12 seasons but now is technically an unsigned free agent. Essentially, at age 33, he’s retired.
But a message from a player who was a three-time NBA All-Star, who scored 57 points in an NBA game, who won two Olympic gold medals and whose dramatic 3-pointer helped an amazing comeback against Arizona that helped lift Illinois into the 2005 Final Four — that’s a message coach Brad Underwood wants his team to hear.
“It would be very foolish not to tap into his expertise and experience and have conversations with him,” Underwood said Monday before practice. “He has done some things in this profession very few have a chance to do. He’ll spend some time with our players and I’m appreciative of that.”
Williams plans to be at the State Farm Center for Tuesday 6 p.m. game against Rutgers. The Illini are trying to win their second straight Big Ten game after ending an 0-for-8 start to league play with a 73-71 win over Indiana last week.
Players said the mood within the locker room has been brighter since the victory.
Forward Kipper Nichols said it’s not so much that the one victory wiped away all the pressure.
“We’re keeping the pressure on ourselves because we want to win as many games as possible. And if we play the right way, play with each other and sustain energy and effort, it will give us a chance to win many games,” Nichols said.
“Getting that first taste of blood and that winning feeling was important to us.”
In the Indiana game, Underwood saw two lineup tweaks net positive results. He’s expected to try them again Tuesday.
One was occasionally using Te’Jon Lucas at the point while sliding Trent Frazier to shooting guard.
“I played a lot of shooting guard in high school,” Frazier said. “Being able to get out on the wing and off the ball takes the pressure off me for a while. I don’t always have to have the ball in my hands.”
And by moving Nichols to the perimeter, where he recently made five 3s against Michigan State, defenses have to guard the arc. That creates more space for Leron Black and Michael Finke inside.
Underwood also likes the defensive pressure that is caused by having Lucas and Frazier on the court at the same time. Lucas likes it, too.
“It gives us two ball-handlers, two decision-makers. And we’re quick guys. People don’t want us out there pressuring them the whole game.”
Illinois has forced 43 turnovers the last two games.
Lucas also feels fortunate to be contributing again. He was suspended two games for a violation of a team rules, then sat an additional game. He returned against Michigan State and was scoreless in 19 minutes.
But against Indiana, he played 30 minutes, scored 11 points, had two assists and a steal and was praised by Underwood for his defense.
Lucas said he’s grateful Underwood was willing to accept him back after the suspension.
“I’m thinking that coach (Underwood) and the man above gave me another chance to play,” he said. “I was happy to be out there with the team again. I’m not going to take it for granted. I’ll play every night not knowing if it will be my last minute, just playing my hardest.
“It was devastating being out. The main thing was that I had let them down and I knew I could contribute. Now it’s learning from my decisions.”
This is the final game of a three-game home stand before the Illini go on the road for a Super Bowl Sunday game against Ohio State at Columbus, Ohio. Game time is 11 a.m. (CST).