Brown ready to lead Illini

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. -- The visual of Dee Brown sitting in the dark, on a curb, with a cast on his right foot, his newly issued crutches to his side and three of his buddies trying to console him is still pretty vivid nearly six months later.

It was at this moment, last June in Chicago at the pre-draft camp, that Brown realized the severity of what had occurred. He knew then that his broken foot meant he was going back to Illinois for his senior season. He didn't say it officially for two weeks, but it was obvious that he couldn't stay in the NBA draft with a broken foot.

One of his close confidants said to ESPN.com right there outside Chicago's Wyndham Hotel that Brown would be back and better than he was as a junior when all he did was lead the Illini to 29 straight wins to open the 2004-05 season. He would be back to lead Illinois to more greatness. The confidant said Brown would, and could, be the national player of the year.

Let's just say the campaign unofficially began Tuesday night here at the Smith Center in a rematch of the 2005 national title game against North Carolina.

Brown was at the free-throw line with 13.5 seconds remaining with the intention of silencing the badgering Tar Heels who had erased a 14-point deficit down to just two points. And in what could be a reoccurring scene -- Brown with the ball in late-game moments -- the point guard iced the game with two free throws for a 68-64 victory.

"If he didn't break his foot, the whole staff knows he wouldn't be here," Illinois assistant Tracy Webster said.

"I knew when he was out there it was cake," Illinois sophomore Brian Randle said. "We depend on him."

And therein could be the problem, or possibly the curse for this squad. There were a multitude of times Tuesday when the Illini were waiting for Brown to make something happen. This isn't the first time it has occurred in the Illini's first six games (6-0), and likely won't be the last. There was one play where Brown drove inside, got to the baseline and was underneath with no place to go. His shot was blocked by North Carolina freshman Tyler Hansbrough.

"He came over to me after that," Webster said of Brown searching for answers at times.

"It's about 99.9 percent of the time," said Randle of the Illini looking for Brown to make plays. "We rely on him heavily. He's a playmaker. He gets everybody energizes and there are times we get caught up and are in awe of him. We need to work out of that."

Brown finished with 14 points, making only six of 19 shots, missing all six 3-pointers. The Illini did have three other players in double figures (James Augustine 13, Rich McBride 12 and Randle with 12).

"Sometimes he does try to do too much and sometimes he gets frustrated when guys don't do what they're supposed to," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.

Brown finished with three assists, two steals and five turnovers, mostly from over-penetrating when his speed overtakes him, forcing a poor decision.

"I tend to turn the ball over too much when I try to do too much," Brown said. "It's going to come and we're getting to know our personnel. We're getting the chemistry."

The Illini had 18 turnovers, two more than North Carolina. There were possessions where the Illini couldn't handle the traps, too.

"Everybody is looking up to me," Brown said. "I'm the senior and I'm trying to give guys confidence and allow them to make plays."

But, in the end, it was Brown who made the most important play by finishing the game with the two free throws, a possession after freshman Jamar Smith missed the front end of a one-and-one situation.

"I love it," Brown said of being on the free-throw line with the game on the line. "I want it to come down to me every time. I'm going to make a play and I knew it could come down to me."

It has to from now on for the Illini. Deron Williams and Luther Head are long gone. This is Brown's team. It became his the moment he broke his foot in Chicago last June.

Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.