EACH WEEK, WE'LL TAKE A LOOK BACK AT A MEMORABLE MOMENT IN ILLINI HISTORY, THANKS TO THE WORDS OF THE NEWS-GAZETTE
This week: Luther Head turned heads in his first Orange & Blue Scrimmage at Illinois
Headline: Illinois freshman eager to improve
Date: Oct. 28, 2001
By LOREN TATE
Back in his triple-double days at Chicago Manley, Luther Head did what came naturally.
"We had a couple of plays," he said, "but basically I just came over the midcourt line and did anything I wanted to do. On our team, we had a lot of guys who liked to go one-on-one. I knew it would be different here, but I didn't know it would be this different."
Yep, Head's free-wheeling days are a thing of the past. Illini coach Bill Self runs an integrated brain-stretching offense, demands unrelenting defensive effort and calls for a level of intensity Head never has experienced.
But the 6-foot-3 leaper is catching on, and he established himself as an eye-popping crowd favorite Saturday night with two of the most remarkable catch-and-score plays this side of the Flyin' Illini.
"Luther is pretty athletic, isn't he?" Self said in an understatement after the Assembly Hall scrimmage.
"He is a month away from being comfortable and playing right. You can't be effective if you have to think instead of react, and you have to go through bad times to be a reactor. Right now, guys like Luther and Blandon (Ferguson) can short-circuit with all that's been thrown at them, but they have a chance to be major contributors in time."
Self isn't making any commitments about the fifth position to go with entrenched starters Brian Cook, Robert Archibald, Cory Bradford and Frank Williams.
The coach might lean initially to dead-eye Sean Harrington, who bagged four first-half treys Saturday.
But the explosiveness of Head and Ferguson pleased first-time viewers. Those two are welcome additions in a season that will begin without Lucas Johnson.
An early priority
"Illinois wasn't one of my top schools in the beginning," Head said. "When Coach Self came here, I knew he had been a good coach at Tulsa. Then, when we met, he had more background knowledge of me than I expected.
"On my visit here, I was impressed by how cool the players are and how they do things together. When I visited another school, the players all split up. These guys bowl, play pool, do different things together."
And the veteran guards, Williams and Bradford, took Head under their wing, making him their particular projects, and it carries over onto the court where Williams keeps an eye out for him on fast-break situations. Head turns lobs into spectacular baskets.
"I think when the older guys are gone, Luther will emerge as the guy that the crowd loves," Self said. "We don't have many guys who can make plays with their elbows over the rim.
"Luther was an early recruiting priority for us because we needed to sign somebody out of the Public League. Rob Judson had located him before I got here."
Roger Powell had committed to Lon Kruger, so Head became Self's first UI recruit. At the time, few central Illinoisans realized the coach had landed a human pogo stick.
But if Head enjoyed a nine-point, 10-rebound debut Saturday, he also had five turnovers. On one occasion, he made an outstanding play and a mistake in a matter of two seconds. When he picked up the box score, the turnover column drew his immediate attention, a sure sign of how the coaching staff has impacted his thinking.
"Hopefully I can cut down on those," he said. "But Coach doesn't harp on mistakes. He says to keep working and not to worry about the last play. I know the guys will have something to say about the dunk I missed. I don't know what happened. Maybe my legs are a little tired. We had a hard practice Friday night, and we worked out again Saturday morning.
"This was a new experience. I'm used to playing before 50 people or so. I never played before so many. This felt like the Chicago Bulls."
Actually, the Assembly Hall was 10,000 shy of capacity, the estimated turnout of 6,500 filling only sections A and B. But the word will spread rapidly to the 10,000 who weren't there. Head, warts and all, is worth the price of admission.
Look for Self to work him in carefully with the veterans and to use the three-guard scheme for lengthy periods - this year and in the future.