Will Illini Rock The Hogs Again?

NORTH LITTLE ROCK - Second-year Illinois coach Bruce Weber, a nice and chatty fellow, has been telling his fifth-ranked team for months that today's matchup against unranked Arkansas in Alltel Arena is huge.

The players' reaction?

Snickers.

Who can blame the Fighting Illini for believing this is a laughing matter?

Illinois (5-0) is coming off Wednesday's 91-73 (and it wasn't that close, folks) stomping of No. 1 Wake Forest in front of an orange ocean in Assembly Hall.

And the Fighting Illini rubbed the Hogs' snouts in it during last season's 81-64 Illinois win in Chicago's United Center. It was 40-25 at halftime and pretty much out of hand from the get-go. Five Illini scored in double figures and all are back for this game.

But expect more fight in this round from a much-improved Arkansas team that finally sports some firepower.

During an Illinois teleconference on Thursday, there was a war of words of sorts. Third-year Razorbacks coach Stan Heath can be seriously sensitive - just ask Dick Vitale -and he was upset at what he perceived to be a Weber grilling.

"We beat them last year at the United Center pretty easily," said Weber, stating the obvious and prefacing his concern of a letdown.

"We didn't give much of a challenge last year," Heath said. "It kind of surprised me that he made that statement. But it's probably the right thing to say to your team to make sure they stay up for that game.

"I know Bruce is a pretty straight-shooting guy, so if he feels that, he feels that."

Game on.

Heath and the Hogs watched Wednesday night's rout, which was televised on ESPN. Weber figures the screening got the Hogs' full attention.

"They watched us on TV, and there's gotta be a little bit of a fear factor," Weber said.

Not sure about that, but Heath and the Hogs were mightily impressed with this great shooting Illinois team that's strong inside and out, deep and incredibly unselfish (of the Illini's 170 baskets, a whopping 122 have come on assists).

"They've been a dominating team and, boy, it's fun to watch 'em," Heath said. "They have probably the best backcourt (junior sharpshooter Dee Brown, tough senior Luther Head and do-it-all Deron Williams) I've seen. I haven't seen 'em up close since last year, but watched 'em on television (Wednesday night) and they were dynamite.

"It's a great opportunity for us. We'd like to be where they are right now. I remember when Illinois was struggling years ago, and they've done a quick job of building their program. And Bruce has done a terrific job from last year to this year of getting his style of system in place.

"For us, it's an opportunity to gauge where we are. We're a program that's up and coming. We've got some good young players and we've got a lot to learn and improve on. And this team will certainly give us a gauge on what we've been doing and where we are."

With most everybody back from last season and an infusion of young height and a dandy junior transfer point guard (Dontell Jefferson), the Hogs hardly resemble the slow-motion, confused bunch Illinois ran out of the United Center last season. Arkansas is 5-0 for the first time since 1997, but the Hogs haven't played anybody in Illinois' league.

Weber likes Arkansas' guards, especially flashy sophomore Ronnie Brewer.

"They're good. ... Very good," Weber said. "It's Brewer's son, the former Arkansas player. You know, he's a long, lanky kid. They have a couple of little quick dribblers, like Dee, that can penetrate and score. They've got another kid (Jonathon Modica, who scored 20 vs. Illinois last season) that was their leading scorer on their team back.

"So they have good guard play and they're just a long, athletic team.

"Brewer will be a mismatch."

Will this game? Hard to say. If Illinois rests on its laurels and expects the Hogs to again play sluggishly and mostly in zones, there might be an ambush.

Weber's been guarding against that. He brought his players here early Friday afternoon to get used to Alltel Arena and ensure they don't plan on simply going through the motions.

"I hope we come to play and hope we're tough to guard," Weber said. "The big thing is we've got to be better defensively. You're always going to have games when you don't shoot well. But if you guard, it gives you a chance. And in our case, when we guard, we're able to get in transition, and that sure eases the pressure on your half-court offense."

For Arkansas to hang, the Hogs must force a load of turnovers, again win the rebounding battle (42-40 last season) and hit open jumper opportunities.

They also could use a Bud Walton Arena-like boost from the Alltel crowd.

Weber heard the last time Illinois played in Alltel (a 62-58 Illinois win in 2002) "there wasn't a great crowd."

A replay would be just fine with Weber.

"You know, for us that's great," he said. "It might be a little bit dead, but I'd rather have that than 20,000 people cheering against us. So I'm not sure how the crowd is going to be.

"We're one of the top teams in the country, so I think that's gotta be a little motivation. You add how we beat 'em last year ... I don't think we embarrassed them or anything, but at the same time, you always remember getting beat by 20 or whatever it was."

Heath and the Hogs remember it vividly. But forget that.

Soon as they put the finishing dunks on Tulsa during Tuesday's 85-73 home win, the Hogs all were talking about a win like this signaling a return of Arkansas basketball to the national scene.

Illinois has lots at stake, too. The Fighting Illini already are thinking about netting a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

"I think we know what's on the line," Weber said. "We have high goals."

Sure they do. But today, they'll both be 10 feet tall.

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