The Illinois basketball team has 11 scholarship players, and all are good enough to contribute to the success of the team. Finding playing time for all of them is difficult. In the case of freshman Crandall Head, it was assumed he would have trouble getting his knee 100% healthy following surgery last year. But he is earning time on the court with quality play.
When healthy, Head has explosive athleticism. He can jump through the gym, and he has extremely quick feet. Add an aggressive, attacking personality that loves to run and you have someone who has the ability to star at the college level. He has strengthened the knee enough to play this year, but he says it still isn't 100%.
"When I sit down for a long time or just sitting down on the bench for a minute, I notice it. I've lost a little leaping ability, but I'm starting to get that back. I'm just coming in trying to do what I can do, not trying to do too much."
Head starred as a sophomore at Rich South but had a year to forget after transferring to Chicago Crane Tech. Moving back to Rich South, he was expected to return to form until the knee injury ended his career. A year without fundamentals and court experience can set anyone back, but Head has overcome these problems quickly.
"It's a big difference from high school to college. There's very tough players, very strong players. You've got to get used to it."
When one has natural ability, acclimating isn't that big a problem. Illinois coach Bruce Weber said he could earn playing time with solid defense, and Head has taken that to heart. He is already a lockdown defender, hustling and using his quickness to good effect. He says he is beginning to take pride in defense.
"Of course. In high school I wasn't too much into it. But everyone's pretty good now so I'm gonna challenge them. If I can get playing time, I've got to enjoy it a lot."
Sophomore D.J. Richardson was the Illini's top defender last season. He says Head is beginning to rival him for defensive supremacy.
"He's very aggressive on defense. He puts his elbow in your back and gets aggressive, especially when Crandall's confidence is high."
Head is also earning playing time by learning the point guard position. That may seem somewhat surprising, given how he sometimes goes too fast and becomes turnover prone. But he believes the position is not much different from what he usually did in high school.
"Sometimes in high school I came down with the ball. I had the ball in my hands mostly all the time. It wasn't necessarily at point guard, but I handled the ball."
The Illini need a backup to point guard Demetri McCamey, and Head has shown he can help there on occasion. His biggest problem is learning how to set up teammates for good shots.
"It's kind of difficult, but it's something that you have to transition yourself."
McCamey sees Head's potential at the point.
"Crandall's been doing good. It's up and down with him after sitting out the whole year. And getting used to college basketball for a freshman is not easy. He's going through that transition.
"He still has things to work on as far as turnovers. But right now he's willing to learn. He's going out there and giving 110%. As long as he plays with intensity, he's gonna get minutes until he learns point guard skills."
Richardson believes he will get there.
"I think he can be real good. He's not scared to take the ball to the paint. He's gonna be a solid point guard in the future."
Head is great in transition, but his outside shot needs work. Besides a tendency to shoot from the side of his head on long shots, he developed a bad habit practicing his shooting while his knee was healing. Weber describes the problem and compares the solution to what older brother Luther Head did to develop into a pro player while at Illinois.
"He has some bad habits from coming back from his knee. Now he's got one foot up, one back. He kicks, and I think a lot of it was coming back and not having the confidence in the knee. The leg he hurt is up. He's shooting on one foot.
"Anyone who's an expert on shooting says you put ten toes in the ground. That's got to happen. To be a consistent shooter, you've got to have 10 toes on the ground, you've got to be squared up to the basket.
"Right now he's not, but he needs to put the time in. It's after practice, it's coming back at night. How much does he want it? It's something we've talked about. You want to get better, you want to get some minutes? Here's some things you can do to help yourself.
"It's a long season; a lot of things can happen. You can work yourself into getting more minutes. Luther spent a lot of time working on his shot and became one of the best three point shooters in the country. But you've got to have the determination to do it."
Head has taken the advice to heart.
"It's not very hard. It's just a habit that I have that I've got to get rid of. Just coming down on both feet when I shoot. I'm coming in late at night putting shots up. I come in with Chester Frazier. He's helping me bring the ball up more, getting it above my head."
Head wants to be his own man, but he doesn't mind comparisons with his older brother. In fact, the "4" on his jersey was his brother's number with the Illini. He accepts advice from his brother also.
"I like it. He does what he can do. I try to come out and do my own thing. I talk to him three or four times a week, just to get some pointers and see how he's been doing. He says to shoot the ball with confidence and keep going hard, play defense."
Head has wanted to be an Illini for a long time, so he was especially pleased when he could finally wear the uniform and play in the Assembly Hall. He's also excited about team prospects.
"It's very exciting. We've got a lot of great players. We can do some good things this year."