Illini Play Western Kentucky In Portland

The wait is over. The Fighting Illini officially are part of the 2009 NCAA Championships. After missing the tournament last year, the Illini have spent the last year working for this day. A 24-9 season record, second place in the rugged Big 10, and a strong schedule earned Illinois a 5 seed. Their Thursday game will be against Ohio Valley Conference champ Western Kentucky in Portland, Oregon.

Waiting with his team on the eighth floor of Memorial Stadium for the televised announcement, Bruce Weber became increasingly nervous. When Illinois finally was called, Weber and his team were ecstatic.

"We're excited. It was loud in the room wihen it popped up there. I don't think we could be more excited getting a 5 seed. Down the stretch, you just never know. If you listen to too many people on TV, you out-think yourself.

"I've been through it 20 some times, and as they keep coming up on the board, you get more and more nervous. The knot gets tighter, and you start walking around. But it was good finally to pop up, and it was as good as we could expect it.

"It's not that I didn't think we deserved a 5, we had a great resume in nonconference. We had some quality wins on neutral sites, won some road games and made a good showing in the league. So I think we did everything we needed to do."

It has been an emotional roller coaster for Illinois this week. They were playing at peak efficiency in practice before senior leader Chester Frazier broke his hand. That sent everyone into a funk prior to the Big 10 Tournament. An emotionally uplifting triumph over Michigan was followed by an emotionally draining loss to Purdue.

The official announcement pushed the Illini players and coaches back up the emotional ladder at an opportune time. Even the timing of the announcement had a positive benefit according to Weber.

"I think the best thing that happened, going so long and then when the 5 popped up, it added even a little more excitement to the whole situation."

Perhaps the only disturbing thing for Weber was the location. But he was able to see some positives about Portland and even crack a joke about it.

"The disappointing thing is we're a long way from home. We have such great fans. I know we will have quite a bit of orange there. The last time we played Oregon in Portland, we had a lot of orange there, and they came from all over the West coast. It was a great showing. I still remember the Oregon people in amazement how much orange was in the crowd.

"The NCAA is trying to watch costs, although they sent us to Portland. I think that's kind of ironic. Purdue and us, an hour and a half apart, we both go to Portland. Maybe we can join up with them and have a dual charter. Save a little money. We'll meet in Danville and eat at the Beef House before we leave. We'll just have to see how it goes."

Three of the four #1 seeds are from the Big East, including #1 overall Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut. North Carolina was the other #1 seed. Weber was pleased that 7 Big 10 teams made the Big Dance, the same number as the Big East and ACC. But he was sad for one friend.

"I feel sorry for Penn State and Eddie (DeChellis) because they had such a good year. But I think we did everything we needed to do to get it."

Immediately after Illinois and Western Kentucky were named to face one another, a CBS-TV commentator called the game his upset special. Weber didn't hear the remarks in the loud celebration, but he is happy for the slight.

"I was told what Seth Davis said. It's good. It's good for us. Any motivation I can get besides what I'm saying I think is helpful. I brought that up to our guys before we all left the room. I said we haven't been on the board 10 minutes and they've already predicted Western Kentucky in an upset over Illinois. I hope that's extra incentive. If anyone else wants to keep predicting it, please do it and we'll keep using it."

Weber doesn't know a great deal about Western Kentucky yet, but he started his scouting report right after the announcement.

"Western Kentucky is a quality team. They were not only in the tournament last year, they advanced to the Sweet 16. They do have a new coach, but a lot of those kids have had the opportunity to play in the tournament and be successful. So you know that will give them a little bit of an advantage.

"When you look at their schedule, they have played a lot of high major teams. Their most notable win of course was Louisville. People say it was early, but they beat them on a neutral court.

"They also played Florida State, Mississippi State. They played the Salukis (Southern Illinois), so I got on the phone with the coaches there and got a little bit of a scouting report, and I'll get more as the night goes on.

"They won their league and also their tournament, so they must have something to them. They're guard oriented, they shoot a lot of threes. They played Georgia right before us, so we watched that game. I think it was a Thursday night because Georgia came right from there to Chicago. It was a good game that went right down to the wire. They were kind of evolving as a team at that time, like a lot of people.

"Just from a quick call to the SIU guys, a lot of threes, ball screens, guard oriented. I hope we have a little bit of an edge inside with our big guys. But we'll find out when we get to the game if we do have that advantage."

Several players were made available to the media, and they all were grateful for the opportunity and thrilled for what lies ahead.

* Mike Davis: "This is my first time, and I'm excited. I can't stop smiling right now.

"Our goal is to get to the Sweet Sixteen. We hope to get farther than that. But we want to take one game at a time, and that's Western Kentucky."

* Trent Meacham: "We knew we were gonna be in there, but at a wide range of seeds. So we're thrilled with the 5 seed. I feel we deserve it, especially seeing some other teams seeded, and we're ready to go."

* Calvin Brock: "Definitely (It's good to get back to NCAA). We tried to win the Big 10 Tournament championship, so we want to make a run at the NCAA championship."

* Demetri McCamey: "I think we came a long way. At the beginning, everyone was doubting us, and we showed them up and did some pretty good things. But now it's a whole new season. If you lose the first round, everybody is gonna forget how you did during the season. We want to prove people wrong and go out and play basketball."

Mike Tisdale: "Somebody had to be the upset pick, and I guess it had to be us. Hopefully, it won't come true. People don't expect us to do much, and that's how we like it.

"This is my first NCAA Tournament. Personally, it's exciting. As a team, we feel really excited to get a 5 seed. Last year, we didn't get in obviously. This year, we had a good season and now we're ready to play.

"You can't just set a goal of getting in, you've got to try to win games or it doesn't mean anything. Anyone can get in if they have a good season. What matters is what you do after it."

* Dominique Keller: "We don't want to be one and done or even two and out. We want to go to the Final Four. We can't lose our focus and not play hard."

Weber felt the pressure of getting back to the NCAA tournament every day since the end of last season. He and his players put in tons of hard work to earn this reward, and he hopes they all appreciate the opportunity.

"It was only one year without it, but I hope they're excited to be back in the tournament. It seemed like forever for me, and I hope they feel the same way. And it's also special for our seniors, who are well deserving of the opportunity we have.

"The Sweet Sixteen is still the goal for our team. If you get to the Sweet Sixteen, anything can happen. It's not easy, and we've got to go one at a time. But I hope they have high goals and big dreams. We'll see how it all unfolds."


Illini Inquirer Top Stories