Byline: Bob Logan Daily Herald Sports Writer
CHAMPAIGN - He's a Grabowski.
Mike Ditka would have found someplace to play Brian Johnson, who personifies the blue-collar, hard-hat image Ditka built for the Bears. Most likely on special teams, where the whole idea is to give up your body, take the punishment, make the play and end up on the bottom of the pile.
Johnson does that for Illinois. The 6-foot-6, 208-pound senior from Des Plaines and Maine West High School revels in his role.
"Basketball is a game of emotion," Johnson said after helping the Illini to their sixth straight victory, a 50-47 overtime struggle at Wisconsin last Saturday. "I try to provide that by taking a charge, coming up with a steal or doing whatever I can to give us some momentum."
Johnson's whole approach, and maybe his whole college career, could be summed up by one of those "whatevers" at the Kohl Center. With the Badgers roaring from behind, Johnson goaded 6-10 Sean Dougherty into knocking him down to draw a crucial offensive foul.
When the thriller ended, Illinois fans went home talking about Kevin Turner's game-saving drive to force overtime or Jerry Hester's scoring and rebounding. That was fine with Johnson.
All he wanted to talk about was the sixth straight victory, keeping the Illini (17-7 overall, 9-2 Big Ten) in the thick of the conference race. It set up Thursday night's Assembly Hall bid to grab a share of the Big Ten lead by avenging an earlier loss to front-running Michigan State (17-4, 10-1).
"This will be a real war," Johnson said, his eyes lighting up in anticipation. "We've been doing what we wanted to do ever since we lost to them, so it's our chance to make a statement."
The main statement from the opponents Johnson guards usually starts with "Ouch!" followed by a few profane hints of retaliation. Chris Heinrich of St. Louis made good on his threat last Dec. 7 after he ran over Johnson and got called for an offensive foul.
"He told me, 'I'll get you for that,' and he did," Johnson recalled.
An "accidental" Heinrich elbow nailed Johnson, sending him staggering to the bench. It couldn't stop the senior any more than getting KO'd in a collision on the practice floor did, because when he gets knocked down, he always gets up.
"B.J. (Johnson) is comfortable doing whatever he can to help us win games," said Illinois coach Lon Kruger. "He doesn't need a lot of recognition from the media or the fans, because he gets it from the coaches and the other players. …