Rossow: Chukwudebe still giving Illini his all
When it comes to cooperation, Victor Chukwudebe is first-team all-conference. When a coach or player asks for his help, the Illinois senior rarely says no.
Thursday, he said no.
Chukwudebe was impersonating Jacob Jaacks at practice to help the Illini prepare for Iowa's bruising big man with roller derby elbows. His role was to act like Jaacks does on the court.
Not look like he does on the court.
"Cleotis (Brown) wanted me to lose the hair," Chukwudebe said. "I'm not doing that."
Chukwudebe might be relieved to know Jaacks has given up the bald look the Illini saw in last month's win at Iowa. He hasn't given up scoring and rebounding and pestering, which makes Chukwudebe's practice presence so vital.
"We've won three in a row," Chukwudebe said. "I'd like to think our preparation in practice has been more of a factor than in the past. I feel good that I might be helping."
It's disheartening to see Chukwudebe's final season at Illinois come down this, injuries relegating the center to practice fodder.
It's uplifting to see how Chukwudebe has responded to the predicament, doing what's asked of him without hesitation. His ego is half the size of Sergio McClain's 'do.
Back up a freshman and come off the bench? No problem.
Pretend to be Jarrett Stephens at practice? Sure thing.
Bump and bang beneath the basket despite a Jess Settles back? There's always aspirin.
Big plans for a big finish
If Chukwudebe had his way, other teams would mimic him in practice.
He flashed hints of potential the first day he arrived from Springfield Lanphier. As a freshman, he played in every game. As a sophomore, he had a hand in a Big Ten title, CBS naming him game MVP in a critical win against Michigan. As a junior, he averaged 5.6 points and 4.9 rebounds and started the final 19 games.
His senior season was going to be his shining moment.
Then he twisted his back in preseason conditioning drills.
Then he bruised a hand in early December.
Then he twisted an ankle over the holidays.
Now he's hardly playing. Chukwudebe saw five minutes of action against Penn State, 10 against Michigan.
"I can't lie: At times it's tough to watch," he said. "But the end result (against Michigan) is that we won by 16 points. That's what matters."
Chukwudebe has yet to play more than 20 minutes in any game this season. He has 49 points, 41 rebounds and eight blocks, numbers he thought he could accumulate in a week, not a semester.
But it's hard to shoot straight (he's at 31 percent) with a crooked back and a swollen knuckle.
"The most frustrating part is that the first three seasons, nothing went wrong," he said. "The season I expected to do the most is when the injuries strike."
Don't mistake the look on his face today as disenchantment. Chukwudebe never smiles in gym shorts. Even if his parents, who sit in the bleachers near the Illinois bench, have his attention.
"That's just me," he said. "People who know me, they know I'm the exact opposite off the court."
Teammates say Chukwudebe is the class clown. Professors say he has a future in marketing. Coaches can't say enough about his attitude this season, Lon Kruger taking time out on this week's radio show to pat him on the (sore) back.
Chukwudebe says he has some basketball left in him. He's feeling better than he has since September, and there are at least eight games left. Maybe today he scores 10 points and grabs 10 rebounds. With Jaacks guarding him.
If not, Chukwudebe won't pout. He'll report to practice the next day and starting working on a hook shot. Anything to get his team ready for Minnesota and 7-footer Joel Przybilla.
"The players need to hear my voice," Chukwudebe said. "I'm the oldest person on the team, and a lot of the younger guys look at me to see how I handle things. I can't lose their respect."
Jim Rossow is sports editor of The News-Gazette.