Bill Cole Hot Streak Comes At Good Time

Bill Cole (Holly Smith)

The Fighting Illini basketball team has better depth this year than last, so competition for positions is more intense. One player most assumed would lose playing time was senior wing Bill Cole. But he wasn't about to take a back seat without a fight. After struggling early in the season, he has bounced back and has been a major factor recently.

Bill Cole contributed 14 points for Illinois in a winning effort at Iowa, including 4 straight three-pointers. He followed that performance with 11 points including 3 of 5 from the arc in helping defeat Wisconsin. He has been on fire lately.

"I've just been shooting confident. I had a bunch of questions beginning of the season. I started off a little slow. Me and Mike Davis, we shoot every day after practice. I'm just shooting with confidence now, and it feels good to help the team.

"I knew my shot would come around. I wasn't worried about it at all. It takes me a couple games to get in my rhythm. I'm starting to knock it down and feel good out there."

Cole worked hard in the off season to become a more well-rounded player. It took him awhile to incorporate new skills during game action, but he is no longer just a three-point threat.

"Definitely. I finally became comfortable at moving from the three position. That's something the coaches talked about with me, that by taking it to a new level being able to do more than just shoot threes. I worked a lot this summer with coming off screens, being able to do more stuff out of that three position.

"I've been trying to work on not being so one-dimensional. Maybe getting to the basket or shooting midrange."

According to Illinois coach Bruce Weber, Cole sometimes tries too hard. He plays better when he lets the game come to him.

"I talked to him about it, 'Just do what you do, just be yourself. If you play well, you're gonna stay in the game.' Billy gives us stability. He knows what's going on.

"Sometimes it's almost better if he doesn't do too much than do too much and screw it up a little bit. If he's doing well and doing the things he can do, he's a valuable member of our team. He gives us that age and experience."

Cole lost his starting job a couple games to freshman Jereme Richmond. But he started against Wisconsin after Richmond strained his Achilles tendon, and he may start again Thursday against Northwestern. But either way, Cole cares more for the team than personal glory.

"I just try not to concern myself with it. It's not anything I can control. It's up to Coach, and I listen to what he says 100%. Whether I'm starting or coming off the bench, I'm always playing my hardest. That's kind of what I bring to the table.

"It doesn't matter what happens, I just work my butt off in practice. I want to start, but at the same time if I come off the bench and someone else starts, I'm gonna play my butt off."

Early in the year, Weber believes Cole started thinking too much and lost some of his relentlessness. He began to doubt himself and tighten up on his shot.

"I think he was disappointed that he hadn't played well. He came into the year with a different mindset. Last year he just wanted to be part of it. He made a goal of being a leader on the Matto per minute. He ended up being our leader on Matto per minute and of total Matto.

"Now maybe mentally, 'I've got to do some other things.' Maybe he put a little pressure on himself and started missing some shots."

Those days seem to be in the past now. Cole is a team leader who provides knowledge, experience, intelligence and stability to the Illini on the floor. He may never be recognized properly for his contributions, but he knows he is an asset to the team.

"It's kind of been my role since I've been here to be overlooked. I'm just doing the same thing I always do, play with a chip on my shoulder. Everything happens for a reason, so I'm just gonna play my hardest and see what happens."

The slender 6'-9" Peorian lacked a position early in his career. He isn't built to bang in the post, but he lacked a guard's quickness on the perimeter. Once he and Weber decided he should play a three, he has worked diligently to maximize his talents for the position. Especially on the defensive end.

"In the last two years, I've been working on my agility and quickness because that's what you need to guard these quick little guards in the Big 10."

Cole uses hustle and all-out effort to make up for a lack of athleticism. His defense has become more refined with each passing practice. In fact, he believes the Illini defense has made a major leap this year.

"I just think it's talent, and it's some hard work. We watched film of our game last year against Gonzaga, and I think our defense this year is 100 times better than last year. It's almost sickening to watch our defense last year.

"We look so much better this year on defense. We have length and athleticism. It's all coming together, we've just got to keep working at it. If we have an upward slope of getting better, we're gonna be really good come tournament time."

Cole thought the Illini would be undefeated at this point. Losses to Texas, UIC and Missouri hit the team hard, but he expects everyone to bounce back and play even better than early in the season.

"It's my senior season. I'm really excited about how much potential the team has and where I think the season is gonna go. The seniors have all talked about leaving a legacy, and we've got the young guys to help us do it this year. We're just super excited because of the talent this team has."

Cole has experienced Illini teams that lacked chemistry and unity. He is convinced those days are in the past.

"We've got a great chemistry and balance in terms of the team and in terms of leadership. It's not like the last couple years where we've had one or two leaders. Now it could be everyone. All the seniors have matured as far as leadership both by example and vocally. It's exciting."

The three freshmen have been a positive influence as well.

"The freshmen are great. Coming in people weren't sure how they were gonna blend in, but it's been real cohesive and smooth. They're great competition for all of us. They're gonna be great players."

There will be more losses; the Big 10 is powerful, and great teams seldom lose at home. But Cole is feeling positive about both the team and his own game. He is preparing to finish his final season on a great note.

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