Last week, one by one, the Illinois players took turns congratulating Bruce Weber for winning a national Coach of the Year award. When Deron Williams shook his hand, Weber looked his point guard in the eye and said, "Deron, I win because of you."
Saturday night, in the opening game of the Final Four, I saw firsthand what Weber was talking about. Williams is the Illini's best and most indispensable player, the man who makes a good team great. He is the biggest reason that Illinois is 37-1, ranked first in the country and one win away from a national championship.
The Illini have a lot of weapons. They're an unselfish team that can beat you in a multitude of ways. In their 72-57 win over Louisville, they got 20 points apiece from their two senior starters, Roger Powell Jr. and Luther Head. At other times, it is irrepressible guard Dee Brown or sturdy forward James Augustine.
But Williams is their unifying force. How often have we seen it over the years? Basketball is a big man's game. But the deeper we go into an NCAA Tournament, and the greater the drama, the more vital the point guards become. Remember Magic Johnson and Isiah Thomas? Bobby Hurley and Mike Bibby? Mateen Cleaves, Gerry McNamara and Khalid El-Amin?
Williams' stat line was nothing special. He had five points, five rebounds, nine assists and four turnovers in 38 minutes. But numbers rarely reflect his impact. Look at the team totals: 21 assists, seven turnovers. A three-to-one ratio will win for you almost every time.
Oh, and Williams also shut down Francisco Garcia, who leads Louisville in scoring and assists. Garcia had averaged 21 points in the first four games of the tournament. Despite giving away 4 inches, the 6-foot-3 Williams held him to four points and two assists.
"I'm going to do everything I can to help my team," Williams said. "My job today was to stop Garcia. He's a big part of their offense. Not only does he create for himself, he creates for his teammates. I knew I had my hands full today and needed to stop him."
Williams picked up his second foul with about 5:04 left in the first half. Rather than bench him immediately, as most coaches would do, Weber kept Williams in for another three minutes. Weber couldn't bear to play a full five minutes without his team's competitive conscience on the floor.
"He's so smart as a player," Weber said, "but then he'll get these casual, stupid fouls. We need him in the game. He has great energy, loves to play, doesn't want to come out. He doesn't look like a great athlete. His body has a little pudginess to him. But he's a very good athlete. He can run forever."
Maybe it was the pudginess that scared off the other big schools. North Carolina passed him over for Raymond Felton. Kansas considered him and went with Aaron Miles instead. Georgia Tech was close to signing him but offered a spot to Jarrett Jack at the last moment.
Williams, a West Virginia native who grew up in Texas, has outperformed them all. He sets the tone for the best passing team I've seen in ages. Illinois has the best assist-to-turnover ratio (1.67-to-1) of any Division I team since the NCAA began keeping the stat five years ago. The Illini are a direct reflection of their selfless point guard.
Weber is a firm believer in team basketball, in "Sharing the Juice." But it took him awhile to sell the team on his unselfish concepts when he replaced Bill Self in 2003. The players resisted, especially Brown. The first guy to buy in totally was Williams, the leader, and the rest of the team eventually followed.
Like any leader, Williams is at his best in the big moments. When Illinois fell behind by 15 points with four minutes to play against Arizona in the regional final, Williams gathered the team together and said, "We're not going to lose this game. We've got to keep going, keep playing. Don't give up. This game's not over. We still have time."
They won in overtime, and they rode the momentum into the Edward Jones Dome for the Final Four. As usual, they followed their point guard's lead. Williams models his game after Jason Kidd, and like Kidd his first instinct is to pass. Like any great playmaker he has a knack for seeing things well before they happen.
He was a step ahead of everyone on the biggest play of the night. Illinois was leading, 55-49, with 8:50 left and the shot clock winding under 10 seconds. Williams took the ball at the top of the key, dribbled toward the right corner, then whirled and fired a cross-court pass to Head in the left corner. Head nailed a three-pointer to make it 58-49.
"That's how I play," Williams said. "I always see both sides of the court. I saw Luther open, so I threw it over there. He was hot. He had hit two shots before that. The clock was running down, and I just wanted to find him. He was all the way across the floor, so I just zipped it over there."
Louisville never got closer than nine again. The Cardinals were within nine one more time, 64-55, but Williams found Powell wide open ahead of the field for an easy hoop. All in all, a nice night for a guy who didn't have double figures in any category.
"Point guards get judged by winning," Williams said, "and I think I have a pretty good record there."