Illinois plays UNLV Friday evening around 8:20 pm Central time in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. The Illini were a 9 seed and the Runnin' Rebels an 8 seed as seven Big Ten teams made the field. The Illini limped into the post season with a number of close losses, but their body of work was still sufficient to guarantee a chance to make a run in the tournament.
Illini coach Bruce Weber felt two distinct emotions upon hearing the news.
"Obviously I'm excited for our kids, our team and our program. And also for the league. I thought the Big 10 had a lot of respect and got 7 in.
"I'm excited, but it's relief also because you didn't know. Last year was so hard to deal with. You thought there was a chance even though you knew it was doubtful. When it didn't happen, it was tough. I was hoping I didn't have to deal with it again."
In a touch of irony some might call "Cosmic Humor," the NCAA Selection Committee chose to pair the Illini against former coach Lon Kruger, now at UNLV. And if the Illini win the first round game, they will most likely face #1 seed Kansas and former Illini coach Bill Self. Weber suggests the NCAA knew what it was doing.
"I think they always look for story lines to add to the drama of March Madness. I'm sure they don't take that much time to find them all, but when they pop up and there's an opportunity, it's something they feel adds to the excitement. I'm sure CBS appreciates it.
"It's a nice story line with Coach Kruger, a former coach here and a guy I've known for a long, long time. He's done a great job whether it was here or at K-State, the great run at Florida and then now at UNLV."
Both Kruger and Self left the UI for what they considered greener pastures. It was apparently true for Self as he has led the Jayhawks to seven straight Big 12 championships and one national title. Kruger left for the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA. That experiment didn't last long, but he now has a good thing going in Las Vegas.
Bill Cole explains the Illini are too young to remember much about Weber's predecessors. But he knows it means something to the fans.
"It will be an interesting story line to watch. For the Illini Nation, it's rare to see three coaches that coached at the school meet together early in the tournament."
Weber says the Runnin' Rebels are a quality team that will be difficult to defeat.
"When you look at it, they beat Virginia Tech, they beat Wisconsin to begin the year. They started 9-0. They have a very good team, an experienced team. They have some transfers and some older guys that have been through the wars."
Second seed San Diego State is also in the Mountain West Conference, and it defeated UNLV three times. However, the three losses came by six, four and two points. UNLV also lost twice to #3 seed BYU. Kruger and company were 24-8 on the year, so they lost only three games against the rest of their schedule.
While Weber questioned setting up a tough schedule for his Illini this year when they were struggling to qualify for the tournament, the #9 seed validated the decision.
"The big thing for me is, we challenged ourselves with the schedule. We've had five top-50 RPI wins, ten top-100 RPI wins. Our schedule rating was tough, and our league rating was tough. When you look at our losses, we got Ohio State twice, we got Purdue twice, teams that are one and three (seeds). We felt like we could compete. Our league has a good product."
To a man, the Illini players were thrilled to be in the tourney.
"It was loud," Mike Tisdale remembered. "Our name came up, and everybody went nuts. Sigh of relief, excitement, ready to play, it's a good feeling. We've got to feel good about it. Especially after not knowing whether we were getting in or not. We're pretty happy."
Mike Davis described it in a similar way.
"Everybody was jumping up for joy. I think that's the most we've celebrated in awhile. We were happy to see our name pop up. We were nervous for a little bit, but when it popped we were very happy."
The four Illini seniors are all disappointed they couldn't win more games this year. But much of the tension in their play related to the need to secure an NCAA tournament berth. Bill Cole feels it is a new beginning.
"If we can do some damage in the tournament, it can throw everything else out the window. This is the big stage. This is what we're in it for, it's why you play college basketball."
Demetri McCamey wants desperately to leave a positive memory in the minds of Illini fans before graduating.
"It would be tremendous. Especially if you get a couple wins in the tournament, everybody forgets about what you didn't do in the regular season. Everybody knows what your last game was better than earlier. You want to go out a winner or that you gave 110% and left it all out on the court."
Ever since he was young, McCamey has dreamed of a day he could make his mark in the NCAA Tournament. Despite a 19-13 record and a history of inconsistent play, McCamey still believes the Illini can make his dream manifest.
"It's a new season. I've watched the tournament for years. Every year, you see #1's go down, #2's go down. So it's a new day. Anybody can beat anybody on any given day. It's just who all gives 110% and make plays down the stretch to win games."