Join us as we follow Southern Illinois, a team that will win your heart.
By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 17, 2002
The Final Four is all about the big schools. You remember: Connecticut, Duke, Ohio State, Michigan State, the last time the Final Four was held in Tampa Bay.
This season the NCAA Tournament returns, and we predict even more fun. This time, it's the Final 65. It's the first and second round at the St. Pete Times Forum, where little-known teams from even lesser-known conferences come to try on the glass slipper.
It's about teams such as Hampton and Gonzaga and Valparaiso and Siena and Murray State and College of Charleston and even Coppin State.
Heck, we think it's about schools such as Southern Illinois, a mid major in Carbondale, a city of 27,000 that wouldn't even be there if not for the school.
A school with a cool nickname -- Salukis! -- that plays in a league, the Missouri Valley Conference, that has produced a few Cinderellas, maybe even the ultimate Cinderella in Indiana State, when it had some youngster named Bird.
There is no fancy gym, no big-name coach, no NBA stars-in-waiting. There's a McDonald's in town, but no McDonald's All-Americans. For a blue chip, you might want to catch a riverboat gambling cruise across the border in Missouri.
Southern Illinois is every team that doesn't have the big conference backing, the television package or Dicky V singing its praises.
But come March, one or two will show up, ready to shock the basketball world (and upset office pools).
This season, we will follow the Salukis from start to finish, ride the roller coaster with them, try to understand what it's like to sweat out each and every game, knowing one loss -- one loss -- could be the difference between the NCAA and the NIT.
We will introduce you to an unsung cast that the big schools didn't want, a coach fighting to put his program on the map for good and a town in which the morning patrons at Mary Lou's all are wearing SIU maroon and wondering just how far the basketball team will go this season.
We're wondering, too.
Welcome to a Season on the Bubble.
Ask anyone in Carbondale -- anyone -- and they will tell you that Southern Illinois coach Bruce Weber could run for local public office and win in a landslide.
All of which makes Weber laugh, considering when he arrived in 1998 after 18 years as an assistant at Purdue, he almost had to recruit his first class of players on a Schwinn.
"When we got here it was a mess; all the car dealers took away the courtesy cars," Weber said. "We joke around about our first recruiting visits and none of us had cars and the people in Purdue finally called and said you have to turn your car in. I kept it for a month. Eventually I returned it and our secretary (Nancy Dennison) was the only one with a car here. So we used Nancy's to take the kids around."
What a difference 79 wins and an NCAA Sweet 16 appearance make. Weber is one of the town's most popular figures. He's raised the basketball fervor to an all-time high.
Those who know Weber aren't surprised. Most who have worked with him describe him as highly committed, determined and tireless. He is a master motivator with an eye for talent and an uncanny ability to develop it.
Last season, his team beat St. Louis, Indiana, Iowa State, Texas Tech and Georgia. This season, scheduling has surpassed recruiting as the hardest part of his job.
"No one wants to play us when you've had success," Weber said.
But the wins have helped rebuild the Southern Illinois following and turned the townspeople into believers.
And Weber has the gas receipts to prove it.
Growing up in St. Louis, he was a schoolboy legend. As a basketball player, he averaged 25 points. As a baseball player, he attracted predraft interest from Atlanta, Arizona and the New York Mets. As a football player, he was a dual threat quarterback.
And in all those sports, Brooks was named Suburban East Conference player of the year, setting a slew of records at Jennings High.
But for his best memory, he goes all the way back to a Little League game when he was 10, a rather meaningless regular-season contest but an 8-7 victory.
"I remember it was raining a little bit, and the bases were loaded, and I hit this ball over the rightfielder's head and just started running, and my helmet went flying off and I came home and we won the game," Brooks said. "The whole team ran out there and just piled on. Everyone. I'll never forget that."
Baseball remains Brooks' first love, but basketball is not so far behind. Last season, he was seventh in the country in points scored off the bench (340). This season he will step into the starting lineup with an eye toward living up to that schoolboy legend.
There are high expectations for a youngster who used to hold his own on the playgrounds in St. Louis against current NBA stars Darius Miles and Larry Hughes.
"The guys back home, they think I should be at a bigger school," Brooks said. "But a lot of them are just glad I made it to college because a lot of guys I grew up with didn't go to college, and they're at home now working or got kids. So they're just glad to see me playing ball and see me on a team."
He has been described by the coach he frustrates as, for the lack of a better word, enigmatic.
Enigmatic being a catchall for thrilling, talented, maddening, lackadaisical, clutch, spectacular, baffling, lazy and brilliant.
Fact is, there is no one word that perfectly describes Jermaine Dearman, so this year he plans to use three:
Big Game Jermaine.
The Indianapolis native feels so strongly about it that three weeks ago he had the description tattooed on his left arm, above an image of him dunking.
"It's just something I felt like I wanted to do," Dearman said. "I mean, I felt I was a big-game player last year. (The NCAA Tournament), it gave me a lot more confidence, and it brought my standards up. Now I have to expect nothing less than big games."
Dearman twice was named player of the game by CBS during the NCAA Tournament, scoring 17 with 11 rebounds in a win over Texas Tech, and scoring 25 in a win over Georgia.
And some of his greater successes have come against Indiana and Indiana State, schools that ignored him at his Indianapolis high school.
Motivated, he is dangerous. But what everyone in Carbondale wants to know is will Big Game Jermaine become Every Game Jermaine? Or will he be the player who had 18 rebounds against Indiana State, followed by one against Bradley?
"Last year he was motivated by not making the all-conference team," coach Bruce Weber said. "Now, he's in SLAM magazine and his picture is in all these things, and is he going to stay driven and motivated? For us to have that great year, it's probably the key to our season. He's gotta be big time."
Shhhh. Don't spread the word, but Stetson Hairston is a good defensive player. The kind you put on and opponent's best player. The kind who can guard bigger players or smaller and quicker players, and shut down both. The kind who held Connecticut's Caron Butler to 6-for-16 shooting and 19 points in the NCAA Tournament, then smiled as Butler lit up Maryland's Juan Dixon for 30 the next game.
But keep all that quiet. He doesn't want folks thinking he can't put the rock in the basket.
"I don't want to see my role be as a defensive player only," Hairston said. "Last year I did guard the best players. That's my rep, and Coach thinks so. But I can score some points every now and then. Last year I just didn't have to. Defensive player? That's kind of like a dirty word."
Coach Bruce Weber will tell you it's a beautiful word. Webber has turned Southern Illinois into one of the better defensive teams in the country, and it's players like Hairston who have helped him do it.
As a high school freshman in Fairview Heights, Ill., the left-hander drew comparisons with former Duke star Johnny Dawkins. But by his junior year, Weber said Hairston plateaued. His assistants kept attending Hairston's games so Weber had to ask: "Why are you wasting your time?"
Now Weber knows. After a year at prep school, Hairston emerged as a key cog on the Saluki machine, mainly on -- here's that word again -- defense.
Which is fine by Hairston. Just as long as you don't forget he averaged 20 in high school and hit double figures 13 times last season.
"Right now that's been my role," Hairston said. "But my junior year in high school, I had to carry my team. So my time will come. I'm ready to win, first of all, and then whenever I have to score a bucket, then I'll do it."
Kent Williams isn't sure he should be classified as a celebrity, but that doesn't stop the folks in his hometown of Mount Vernon, Ill., one hour north of Southern Illinois, from doing so.
Williams recently returned home to read to the students at Mount Vernon's K through 3 school, and children who were promised a star weren't disappointed.
"There was supposed to be a local celebrity there, and they were saying, 'Oh, well, he's famous.' I was famous? No, no. But it's crazy back home. Just going to the Wal-Mart can be nuts. At my old high school, I've got my jersey retired there. They make a big deal out of me there. I kind of like it; it's nice to be recognized."
Williams is Southern Illinois basketball, or the "franchise" as coach Bruce Weber calls him. He is the freshly scrubbed, home-grown product (Tom Arnold made fun of him on Best Damn Sports Show Period because of his boyish looks) who could have gone to a bigger college but stayed home, who stuck with Southern Illinois through some trying times, and who is 551 points shy of Charlie Vaughn's 40-year-old scoring record.
In three seasons, he has started all 99 games, scoring in double figures in 83. He may end up the most famous Saluki since Walt Frazier and Dick Garrett led Southern Illinois to the 1967 NIT title.
"The biggest joke we have is that he can become the all-time leading scorer in school history without a dunk. I mean, it's really unheard of," Weber said. "He can dunk now; he got one in our exhibition. And he did a reverse the other day. He promised at the banquet he'd get a dunk this year. We'll see if it comes in a game."
It is the shoes.
If there is a reason Sylvester Willis is playing Division I basketball, it's that his feet grew faster than the rest of his body. Though only 5 feet 7 as a high school freshman in Calumet City, Ill., Willis was wearing size 15 shoes. That was enough to convince his coach that he would grow, and he did.
"When he was a youngster, he looked like Bozo the Clown out there, with his shoes flopping around," SIU coach Bruce Weber said. "He was falling all over himself when we saw him. But we knew it was just a matter of letting his body catch up."
From guard to forward to center, Willis, a high school teammate of Chicago Bull Eddie Curry, became what he hoped he would, sprouting 9 inches in 18 months. Though he averaged only 11 points and 7 rebounds, he was all-conference and kept the attention of Weber.
"By my sophomore year, I was up to 6-2, and then I just kept on growing," Willis said. "I was just all right as a player. Basically I played because all my friends were on the team. But as I got bigger, I wanted to be the guy that everybody picked in games. So I started working on my game really hard."
Weber is hoping for a similar transformation this season. Willis must assume a bigger role after averaging just 12 minutes in 2001-02. He never posted double-figure points or rebounds until doing both in this season's first exhibition game.
"I told him he has to be most improved in the league," Weber said. "If he can do that; we're not going to replace Rolan (Roberts, Missouri Valley Conference player of the year), but ... "
Filling big shoes has never been a problem for Willis.