Illini's Williams still trying to hit stride

Monday, December 17, 2001

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Frank Williams was so confident in his ability, so certain things would go well for Illinois, that he announced he was turning pro after the season even before it began.

And what if Williams had an off year?

"I didn't come back to have a bad season," he replied.

Well, it's started that way.

No. 10 Illinois (8-2) has lost two of its last five games, while Williams -- who has played well only in spurts -- has drawn criticism from coach Bill Self.

The preseason All-American was shooting 36 percent from the field and 27 percent from the 3-point line prior to Sunday's game against Western Illinois, although he did have a solid performance with 17 points, six assists and five rebounds as the Illini romped 98-62.

But overall, Williams decision-making for the most part this year hasn't been much better than his shooting.

Williams, whose quick first step allowed him to drive past defenders a year ago, has instead settled for contested jumpers for much of this season. He knows he's doing it but isn't sure why.

"I just need to get better shot selection more than anything. I can't blame it on my shot not falling. I think I'm shooting fine," he said.

Self has made several attempts to motivate Williams.

The coach benched him for a preseason game then called him overweight, saying the 6-foot-3, 205-pound guard had lost some of the quickness that made him the Big Ten Player of the Year.

Challenges from coach

Self also has repeatedly challenged Williams to become more of a leader, a role Williams has been slow to embrace.

"I don't think that over time the coach can be 'the guy,"' Self said. "There has to be more leadership on the floor. We're a talented team without a head at times. The leadership needs to come from the guard, the point. It needs to be Frank."

That has been a work in progress.

After Illinois lost to Maryland 76-63, Self strongly hinted that several players -- especially Williams -- were more interested in showcasing themselves on national television than playing as a team.

Williams was 3-of-16 from the field against the Terrapins and had just one assist.

Self said after the game that Illinois lacked strong leadership and singled out Williams as someone who needed to start providing it.

"You can't say that we've got no leadership based on one game. What you can say is our leadership needs to get better," Self said. "I'm probably talking more about one person than I am the team, but that one person is real important to us because everything starts with him."

While the soft-spoken Williams is confident he will be in charge on the floor, being a vocal leader is more of a problem.

"I wouldn't say it fits my personality right now, but it's getting there," Williams said. "That's not something that you go home and just practice in the mirror. It just kind of falls in place."

Weight not a worry

As for the barbs about his weight, Williams isn't worried.

Williams, who sprained his wrist in the preseason, was forced to sit out during stretches of practice early in the season. That slowed his conditioning, but Williams says he is fine now.

More likely Self's comments were an attempt to motivate the talented guard, and Williams knows it.

"I think he's trying to get me going. I don't think I'm out of shape," Williams said.

It might have worked. Williams played perhaps his best game of the season shortly after Self's comments, tying a career-high with 30 points in an 87-82 loss to Arizona on Dec. 4.

The Illini, who trailed by as many as 19 early in the second half, closed within four as Williams scored 16 points in the final 4:19 of the game.

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