- Started 30 of 32 Games
- Ranked 2nd on Illinois in Assists Per Game
- Ranked 3rd in The Big Ten in Assists Per Game
- Ranked 2nd in The Big Ten in Assist-Turnover Ratio
- Ranked 2nd on Illinois in Steals (46)
- Led The Big Ten in Assists during Conference Play (77)
- Named to the College Insider.com All Freshman Team
- Selected to USA Basketball Men’s Junior National Team
Deron arrived at The University of Illinois as a Top 50 recruit in the nation and the heir apparent at point guard to 2001 Big Ten Player of the Year Frank Williams, who graduated from Illinois in 2002 after a four year run which included two Big Ten titles and three NCAA tournament appearances.
Williams’ shoes would be large ones to fill for D-Will, but as a freshman Deron quickly established that he would be more than capable of doing so on both ends of the floor. In his first college game, against Lehigh, D-Will got the start and made 5-of-7 shots for 12 points while handing out four assists in a 90-56 Illini win.
Deron started seven of the next eight games for Illinois as the Illini booked out to an 8-0 start that included big wins over No. 14 UNC and No. 10 Missouri. By Christmas, Illinois was ranked No. 7 in the nation. A loss to Memphis on 12/28 only served to push the Illini as they finished non-conference play with a record of 10-1. D-Will finished non-conference play averaging 7.3 points and 4.6 assists per game.
The Illini got off to a good start in conference play, with wins over Minnesota and Wisconsin, but hit a speed bump in Mid-January with consecutive losses to Iowa and Indiana. They would however be the only back-to-back losses by Illinois during the 01-02 season.
Over their final 12 Big Ten games of the regular season, the Illini went 9-3 to take second place in the league and the second seed in the conference tournament. In conference play, D-Will averaged 4.8 assists per game, tops in the conference during conference play along with 5.3 points per conference contest.
The Illini breezed through the quarterfinals with a 94-65 win over Northwestern behind eight points, four assists and three rebounds from D-Will. They took everything Indiana had to offer in the semifinals, but held off the Hoosiers 73-72 to reach the finals. In the final they cruised to a 72-59 victory to claim Big Ten supremacy for a third straight year.
Illinois took a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament and faced off against No. 13 Western Kentucky in the opening game of the West Regional. With 11 points, include three triples, four assists and three steals from Deron, the Illini advanced to the next round.
“The one thing that probably surprised me was Deron Williams going three-for-three from 3-point range,” Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton said. “That made things a little more difficult for us.”
Each of those threes was crucial in a 65-60 win, which pushed the Illini into a second round matchup with No. 5 seed Notre Dame. It was there that Deron’s freshman season would come to and end in a 68-60 loss. He finished with five points, three assists, three steals and two rebounds.
Following his freshman season, D-Will was selected to the USA Basketball Men’s National Junior Team. He started all eight games that the team played in Greece as they went 7-1. Deron led the team in assists with 38 and was fourth in scoring at 8.4 points per game.
The experience pushed Deron to come back to Illinois even better in his sophomore season. He was also under a new coach in Champaign. After Self left Illinois to take the head coaching job at Kansas, the Illini named Bruce Weber the head coach.
In his second season in Champaign, Deron led the Illini in scoring at 14 points per game, eighth in the conference. He also led the Big Ten in in-conference assists for the second straight season, becoming only the third player to do so in his first two seasons in the conference along with Magic Johnson and Bruce Douglas. Illinois finished as the regular season Big Ten Champion and was runner-up in the Big Ten Tournament.