The first player that we will be featuring is Illinois' junior point guard and fan favorite Dee Brown.
On a national level, last season became a season of missed expectations from Dee, but a season that showed his growth into a complete basketball player. Along with Wisconsin's Devin Harris, Dee was named the Big Ten's Preseason Player of the Year, and he was expected to be the face of the new Fighting Illini under Bruce Weber. Then during late last summer, rumblings started to come out through Bruce Weber's interviews that he was still looking for the leader on this Illini team. When asked about his coach's declaration, Dee stated he was the team's leader, but a seed of doubt was already set as the season began.
The seed started to mature and grow roots within Dee as he started off the season struggling to score, and his team struggled to live up to lofty pre-season expectations. With his shots not falling, Dee began to press, and because of this, Dee struggled even more. The games against North Carolina in Greensboro and Providence in New York were the pinnacle of Dee's on court struggles. Dee was pushing to be the best player he could be; instead of just playing based on instincts, Dee was thinking about every move he wanted to take. As the year progressed, Dee started to learn more and more what was wanted of him by the new coaching staff, and his game progressed into a game of reactions versus thought.
By the end of the season, Dee had matured into a complete basketball player instead of the speed player he previously was. Instead of just relying on his speed to beat defenders down the court to score, Dee was using a complete repertoire of basketball skills at the end of the season and became a true triple threat with the basketball.
There is no denying Dee Brown's greatest asset on the court is his speed. Dee uses his speed to create mismatches on both sides of the court. It is especially obvious in the open court as he keys the Fighting Illini fast break on both made and missed field goals.
Last season saw Dee using his speed more in the half court as he was now more under control, and the new offense asked for Dee to run more off screens to find open jump shots. Early on in the season when Dee's jump shot was struggling, the one thing that stands out from Dee's play was him running from sideline to sideline on the baseline trying to get an open shot. That determination ran through Dee for the entire season, and it never wavered when he was on the court.
- Every one always praises his back court partner's court vision for good reason, but people often times overlook Dee Brown's vision on the court. In the open court, there is no better passer on the Fighting Illini than Dee. This past season, Dee started using that same vision he had in the open court in the half court game. In the half court game he was able to find cutting teammates and feed them the basketball in the right place, just like he does in the open court.
Before the season started, Bruce Weber openly questioned the leadership on the Illinois basketball team. Dee Brown was rightfully taken aback by these comments, because he already considered himself the team leader. Dee took the challenge Weber laid out, and became a leader on and off the court. During his freshman season, Dee was the voice of the Fighting Illini, even more so than Brian Cook, but he was not a team leader. The young Illini leaned on Brian Cook like a crutch throughout the season for toughness and energy, and without him they did not know where to look. During his sophomore season Dee started to let his play do more talking than his mouth when it came to leadership, and he became someone that helped instill toughness and energy in his teammates. Dee was often seen in on court huddles instructing, firing up, and consoling his teammates.
The other aspect to Dee's leadership is the way he always played the game at full speed: diving for lose balls, pushing the ball up the court, and never taking a play off despite the pain he was feeling with his stress fracture. It was not found out until after the end of the season that Dee was suffering from a stress fracture for the majority of the second half of the Big Ten season and the NCAA Tournament. Fans were told that he was feeling some pain, but no one besides his teammates, the training staff, and the coaching staff knew the extent of the injury.
Defensively, Dee Brown was needed to disrupt the point guard's ability to start the offense. To do this Dee normally picked up the opponent's point guard at three-quarter court with some token pressure. This gesture rarely, if ever, caused turnovers, but it did take precious seconds off the shot clock, giving the opponent less time to run their half court offense.
In the half court, Dee improved his defense dramatically between his freshman and sophomore seasons. During his freshman season, Illinois would play both man-to-man and junk zone defenses, but last year Bruce Weber told his team they would play only play man-to-man defense. As the season progressed, Dee became more and more familiar with the nuances of Weber's pressure man-to-man defense, especially off the ball. Dee's improved positioning and eye contact off the ball led to many of the steals and run out baskets Fighting Illini fans grew to love.
Basically, if there is one thing I consistently harped on Dee Brown for it is his lack of ability, or desire to use his left hand, especially on lay ups. Sure, he would use his left hand every once in a while as was witnessed by the beautiful move he made against Cincinnati in the Illini's NCAA Second Round victory. But, the problem is Dee rarely uses his left hand. I am shocked more teams do not force Dee to use his left hand by overplaying his right-hand. What really irks me about Dee not using his left hand is it is one of the basic basketball fundamentals, and every Division I basketball player should be able to use his left hand with confidence.
Now you may be wondering why this is such a big deal to me because you say to yourself, "what does it matter? He makes the shot." The problem is by using the left hand when you are on the left side of the lane you shield the ball with your body from the defender trying to block the shot. With Dee's height, he needs all the shielding he can get because his lay ups are always candidates for a blocked shot. Normally, if someone tries to block a left handed lay up, they will end up fouling the player because they need to go through the body to get the ball. By using the right hand on the left side of the basket, Dee puts the ball in front of his body and allows defenders to swipe at the basketball and block the shot without contact.
Dee is your stereotypical streak shooter, and he has been his whole career at Illinois. If Dee is on fire, he can score 40-plus points as he showed last year in the USA Junior games. If Dee is cold, he can miss ten shots, as Illinois fans witnessed in the early portions of last season. After watching a few of last year's game again, all you needed to watch to see if Dee was in the flow with his shot was his feet.
Normally when Dee was missing shot after shot, he was rushing to try and gain his shot back. All that did was continue to hamper his ability to shoot the basketball. When Dee rushed his shot, he never set his feet and often times faded away as he shot the ball. Dee was a much better shooter when he was calm and collected, and leapt from the floor with a solid base beneath him.
In 2004-2005, there is little doubt the Fighting Illini will go only as far as their backcourt tandem of Dee Brown and Deron Williams takes them. Dee will be needed to improve even more of his game for Illinois to make the Final Four, as will every one of his teammates. The difference between the 2004-2005 season and last year will be the expectations laid upon the feet of Dee Brown. Heading into last year he had the weight of being named the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year, but heading into this season he will most likely be under the radar due to his low scoring output last season. Without the burden on his shoulders of being the Big Ten Preseason Player of the Year and the adjustment into a new system, Dee Brown should finally be able to play basketball next year and he should flourish.
Offensively, Dee should improve on his season numbers for the simple fact that he can now score by other ways besides the run out and jump shot. Dee showed in the second half of last season he could score in the half court by taking the ball to the basket when the opportunity presents itself. He has yet to master the ability to stop and make the mid range shot, but that ability has improved to where he should be a threat with the mid-lane floater. If Dee can start hitting the floater with consistency, he will be tough to stop for any opposing defender.
There is only one thing that can keep Dee Brown down next season, his stress fracture. Dee is supposed to rest and stay off his feet for nearly the entire summer. By doing this, Dee should be at one hundred percent by the time conditioning starts next fall. The only question is whether or not Dee's stress fracture will completely heal, or if they will become a chronic problem for the rest of his Illinois career. All signs from Champaign point to the fact that Dee should be ready to go at the start of the basketball season, but I cannot help but have a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that this could be a chronic issue. I have no extra knowledge other than newspaper reports I have read, just my own pessimism that creates that pit sitting there in my stomach.