Bill Cole is a classic "tweener." The slender 6'-8" basketball player is a hybrid between the small forward and big forward positions. It has taken him longer to find a niche on the team. At least, he is able to practice this year after sitting out much of last season due to injury.
"It's nice to be injury-free this year. The injuries kind of set me back. But I'm just coming to practice every day and practicing my butt off, trying to get an opportunity. It's hard sometimes, but I have teammates to talk to about it, so it's not that bad. I know my opportunity's gonna come someday."
Actually, Cole was set back with an ankle sprain that limited his practice time for a week or two up to and including the Orange and Blue Scrimmage this fall. He has been healthy since then. But now he is splitting time in practice between the guards and the bigs. Has this hurt his progress?
"No, I actually think that can be one of my strengths. I can be real versatile depending on who's guarding me. Maybe I can exploit ones who are shorter or taller than me. So I think it is more of a strength than a weakness.
"You've got to learn the plays from all the positions. That's not that bad. It's good to learn the different positions because you won't always be in the same position anyway. Other than that, it's not too bad.
"We have defensive principles for the whole team regardless of position. You do have to be more fluid and agile when you are with the guards and have to move quicker. And you have to be more physical and ready to bang when you're with the big guys. It's like a Catch-22. You want to do one thing, but it's hurting the other things."
Some have wondered why the son of former Illini defensive end Terry Cole hasn't followed Mike Tisdale's regimen of eating 6000 calories a day to bulk up. But he has no plan to do that.
"I like where I'm at right now body wise. I'd like to keep that while doing a good job in the weight room. I'm kind of like the perfect height to do both if you're gonna do both. I think I'm quick enough to where I can play with the guards. And I have the length and versatility to play with the bigs if they need me. I'll do whatever they need me to do."
This versatility is like a decathlete who wins the gold medal without winning any of the 10 individual events. Others may want Cole to choose one position, but perhaps his first best destiny is to blend his various talents into a player who defies classic definitions.
"That was the plan when they brought me here. Sometimes, I think you can get lost trying to do everything at one time. I think I'm gonna get my opportunity. We're playing so well this year, I know it's gonna be hard for me to break into the lineup."
It takes longer for a hybrid player to develop. But if Bill continues to work hard, he may be of special help to Illinois once he self-actualizes.
"I'm confident I can play at the four right now. I'm practicing more at the three pretty much this whole year. I usually stay on the guard side, but I can hop over if somebody gets hurt and they need me with the big side.
"I'm not really worried about my weight. I think I can use other things as a strength like being a quicker four rather than a stronger four. Or, one who can get off the ground faster. So it just depends. I think I'm ready to play, I just need the opportunity to show it."
Coach Bruce Weber has seen progress this year. In fact, he was able to insert Bill into the Indiana game in the first half, which is always difficult for an established team competing for a Big 10 Championship.
"He's actually made some progress since Christmas. I don't know if he's playing loose and free now that he's not a factor, but he's making some shots. He appears to be playing a little stronger, more aggressive.
"He's a perimeter guy on offense, but he has trouble guarding quick people. And then, does he have the strength to guard the bigger guys. He's had a great attitude, he's remained positive. He's got to continue to improve and get stronger. One thing he can do is make open shots."
Cole comes from a versatile family. His younger brother T.J. is an outstanding athlete at Peoria Richwoods High School. He is proud of his younger sibling.
"Speaking of versatile athletes, T.J. is good in three sports. He excels in track too. Their relay team went to state with the 4 X 200. He's real versatile. I know for a fact his coach at Richwoods just moved him from guard to big man because their big man got hurt. So he's kind of in a similar situation. I guess he accepted the role pretty well, and he's playing great.
"He's not as tall and lanky as me. He's stockier and shorter. But he's 6'-4" or 6'-5". He could play whatever he chooses to play. I love watching him play football. He's a linebacker. And if he wanted to play football in college, I think schools would have him."