Illini’s Davis levels up, Cole’s game on pause

Mike Davis (24) signals to the crowd to cheer louder at the home game against Purdue at the Assembly Hall on Sunday. Brad Meyer (left), Dean Santarinala (right)

Mike Davis (24) signals to the crowd to cheer louder at the home game against Purdue at the Assembly Hall on Sunday. Brad Meyer (left), Dean Santarinala (right)

By Jeff LaBelle

Two guys on a couch playing video games – that’s one way to see it. A simple round of FIFA 2009 fills an afternoon, while the two guys playing it talk about basketball, girls and anything in between.

On one end of the sofa is Mike Davis. Tall and lanky, the 6-foot-10 forward is one of the biggest reasons for the Illinois basketball team’s resurgence this season. When he’s not dunking over opponents, he selects the English soccer team Chelsea and grabs a controller.

Bill Cole, sitting on the other end, usually selects Liverpool. Cole’s waiting for his chance on the court and to develop an Illini identity. The name on his Illinois jersey takes care of that somewhat. The rest only comes from playing time and developing a relationship with the fans, something he hasn’t done yet.

“I just want to show them that I can come out there and play with energy,” Cole said in October, as he put last year’s season-ending leg injury behind him. “I want to be one of those guys that the crowd looks forward to seeing out there and can get up for, take charges, run the floor and bring back some excitement to Assembly Hall.”

Although the sophomore duo considers the friendly rounds of FIFA a way to pass the time, the sessions also reignite a competition between the two that in recent months has diminished. The roommates were relative unknowns outside Champaign before the season started and often had to beat out each other for game minutes. But things are a little different now.

Davis, averaging 10.8 points and almost eight rebounds per game, has his name all over box scores, opponent’s scout tapes and ESPN highlights. Davis played 32 minutes against Purdue on Sunday, grabbing 16 rebounds and scoring 14 points. How many minutes has Cole played this season? Fifty-eight.

“That’s kind of out of my hands,” Cole said. “I can’t put myself in the game – obviously I would, I would love to. But what I can do is come to practice every day, keep a good attitude and not try to bring the team down. I just know one day I’m going to get my chance, and when I do, I have to go out there and make the most of it.

It’d be easy to call the video game sessions a “guy thing;” the two even have a whiteboard in the kitchen to keep score. Every time they walk past the stove Davis and Cole are reminded of how they stack up against one another. A loss, even an electronic one, stings a little bit.

“If one of us loses, we’ll be in a real bad mood all night until we play again tomorrow,” Cole said.

Those feelings, for the most part, are limited to the apartment. Cole’s not one to complain about playing time or even bring it up unless prodded, but the sophomore from Peoria, Ill., expected to have more of it at this juncture. Months ago, before Davis proved himself as a starter, Cole was a viable option to fill time at that position. Now, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber doesn’t know exactly what to do with him, despite a string of consistent practices and an accurate shot.

“Is he a 4? Is he a 3? He’s a perimeter guy on offense, but he has trouble guarding perimeter people,” Weber said. “He’s had a great attitude. He’s been very positive.

“He’s got to improve and continue to get stronger and find a niche. It’s possible. He can shoot, that’s the one thing he can do. He can make open shots.”

Sophomore reserve Jeff Jordan, who has a more consistent role minutes-wise, said he’s talked to Cole about playing time. The two often stay late after practice with each other, shooting some hoops and exchanging feedback.

“We talk about it all the time,” Jordan said. “It’s good that we have each other to talk to, and if he needs me, I’ll be there and if I need him. And if we’re feeling down about the playing time situation, everything, I can go to him, too.”

For Cole, the conversations help him understand his situation better.

“Me and Jeff share somewhat of the same situation, and I know Mike (Davis) is kind of on the opposite side of the fence,” Cole said.

“I don’t know if it’s so much asking them about how to get in games; I just talk to them and see how they’re feeling.”

After playing in 12 games as a freshman and averaging more minutes and points than he does this year, Cole noticed something was not quite right.

“I started saying things to the trainers – a little bruise, maybe?” Cole said. “It got to the point where I tried to play through it, but it was impossible. In Michigan State, we were having a walk-through before the game, and I could barely walk through plays.”

Cole had sustained a stress fracture in the lower third of his leg.

“I had just started getting back in my minutes and stuff,” Cole added. “It was kind of a rough point to have to sit out.”

Cole said he “didn’t do anything” for four months after that while attempting to rehab the stress fracture. It was a long road back, and even though he’s not playing much now, Davis said Cole remains committed to his future at Illinois.

“He’s not even thinking about transferring,” Davis said. “He’s a great player. I don’t think he’s missed a shot in about two weeks, honestly. If he keeps having good practices and coaches keep noticing like I know they have, his time will come soon.”

As silly as it may sound to some, the FIFA ritual is part of a friendship that transcends playing time and success on the court.

The two gamers use it as a way to stay competitive off the court – even if teammates shoot them strange looks when the conversation turns to soccer.

“One time, Calvin (Brock)a nd Jeff came over and started making fun of us a little bit,” Cole said, “But you can tell they wanted to try it out.”

There’s no shortage of teammates who think Cole will get his shot at success on the court this season, though none are sure when. And even though Cole swears he beats Davis almost every time at FIFA – though Davis claims otherwise – that’s not where he’d like to do the most damage.

With Illinois sitting pretty at 19-5 (7-4 Big Ten), it appears difficult for Cole to break into the rotation barring an unforeseen injury. But Cole maintains that he’s happy as long as the team is winning, a sentiment he expressed even before the season started.

“I’d love to play as much as possible, anyone would. But for me, minutes is a plus,” Cole said. “I just want to win games. I don’t care. Honestly, if I’m helping the team win games, I’m going to be happy.”