Bring on the Illini (Men’s Basketball)

Gerald Tang

All Sterling Williams had to do was send back the text message, and his point was made.

Even at a high-profile basketball program like Illinois, the name “Chris Hicks” probably doesn’t register with the everyday college basketball fan. But when Hicks suits up for the No. 7 Fighting Illini this weekend, he only has to look across the court to find someone who knows him as well as anybody.

Williams and Hicks are close friends who played four years together at Whitney Young High School in the ultra-competitive Chicago Public League. They will be on opposite sides Saturday as Northwestern (9-7, 2-3 Big Ten) hosts Illinois (16-2, 2-2) at Welsh-Ryan Arena.

“I’ll probably call him tonight,” Hicks said when asked Thursday about any pre-game trash talk. “I might say a few words. But he doesn’t usually respond. He just ignores it.”

Back when Hicks was trying to walk-on to the Illinois team last year, he sent Williams a text message saying how much he wanted to make it – and how thrilling it would be to play in the same conference as his former high school teammate.

“It would be a dream come true for both of us to be playing in the Big Ten and walking across to halfcourt to shake hands,” Hicks said.

But the 6-foot-2 guard could not find a place on a deep Illinois squad that went 37-2 and lost in the national championship game to North Carolina. This season – with former Illini guards Deron Williams and Luther Head departed to the NBA – Hicks earned a spot on coach Bruce Weber’s team.

When he heard of his friend’s success, the first thing Williams did was send back that text message.

“I was excited knowing how excited he was,” Williams said. “He’s a real energy kind of guy, so I know how excited he was. I was really happy for him.”

In addition to playing on the same AAU team, Williams and Hicks trained together throughout high school and were good friends off the court. When Williams committed to the Wildcats, the two worked out at NU together.

“Ever since I met him as a freshman, we’ve been competing, guarding each other in practice,” Hicks said. “We just went at each other, no mercy.”

The two probably won’t have an opportunity to renew their rivalry Saturday. While Williams – a redshirt freshman – has worked his way into the Cats’ starting lineup, Hicks has played 16 minutes all season in a reserve role with the Illini.

But that doesn’t mean the competitive fire of not-so-old times won’t be rekindled.

“We played together for four years,” Williams said. “It was the kind of thing where even though we were good friends, on the court we had a lot of intense battles. We’re both very competitive, and we were matched up against each other a lot in practice, so things got really competitive a lot of times.”

Reach Gerald Tang at [email protected]u.