Illinois coach Bruce Weber has an excellent team, as the 24-9 record attests. But one major Illini asset that is often overlooked is Weber's experience in the NCAA Tournament. It may be the edge the Illini need. He has been helping them develop the right mind frame for several weeks now.
"I tell them to enjoy the opportunity. That's the most important thing. I started talking about the tournament about three weeks ago. I brought up scenarios. Two years ago, we were a 12 (seed), and Virginia Tech was a 5, and we thought we should have won that game. So it shows you it doesn't matter what the seeding is.
"Your 1 and 16's and 2 and 15's (may go true to form). But after that, anything can happen. I tried to start prepping them, make them start thinking about it. How you need to approach it, the excitement of it. You've got to go one at a time, but you've got to leave the last play, the last game behind.
"If you're fortunate to win the first game, now you've got to go win the second one. You can't have a letdown because if you do, you're done. I hope I've been getting them to think about it a little bit, getting the mind going in a positive way. I've told them all along, your mental approach to it is so important."
Of course, part of having the proper frame of mind is getting rid of all the negative memories from recent failures. Reserve forward Dominique Keller said the Illini players had a team meeting after their embarrassing loss to Purdue in the Big 10 Tournament that may have helped the cause.
"We were talking about how some guys weren't giving it their all. We got on each other and said we all should be a little more mature. Me specifically, a couple guys said I needed to play harder to get more minutes.
"I definitely looked at myself in the mirror and realized there were a couple plays I could have went harder, I could have boxed out a little bit harder. And that might have been the difference in some of the games we lost close.
"It was just a humbling experience for everybody. Everybody took a good look at themselves. We feel like, we've got to rely on each other when bad things happen. When we play as a team, moving the ball and talking and sharing with each other, nobody can beat us. There's times when we have a lead and get caught up, things going wrong and nobody's talking, we've got our heads down. We can't be like that.
"The loss really hit home with us. Now, if we lose we're out. There's no team meeting, no talking about it, it's over. Nobody's gonna feel sorry for us, we lost and it's over. I think it was definitely a wakeup call for us."
Weber was pleasantly surprised to hear about the meeting afterward.
"I didn't know they had a meeting. I talked to them afterward and told them I was proud of what they've done all year. The only thing I was disappointed in, I was disappointed we didn't compete a little harder. To me the score doesn't matter, it's competing and playing determined. I thought we out-toughed them the first two times, and this time they got us out of focus early, which was disappointing."
Coach Weber has fond memories of his time at Western Kentucky, Thursday's foe in Portland, Oregon.
"I did my grad work there, I got my Master's. And it was my first job. It gave me an opportunity to get into the coaching world. So I have a lot of good memories. We won the OVC (Ohio Valley Conference) that year and went to the NCAA tournament.
"We hosted the regional at Bowling Green (Kentucky) and let a 20 point lead at halftime against Virginia Tech get by. They were by far the better team, but we lost in overtime. So it was not a good memory of that.
"I only made $2000.00, so I had to call home a lot of times. And then I asked my wife to get married because I didn't have any money. I got that opportunity, and then I got to go to Purdue from there. I couldn't dream of anything better."
He is happy to be back in the tournament, even if it means playing his old school. He realizes the Hilltoppers will be a tough challenge for his Illini.
"We're excited about being a 5 seed. Now we've got to get down to business. I've been able to watch about three games, and Coach (Wayne) McClain has the scout and has watched several games. Western Kentucky is an impressive team, very perimeter oriented with a lot of different weapons. And it's a good transition and rebounding team.
"It seems we're gonna have to get ready to guard multiple ball screens, spreading you out shooting the three ball and pushing the ball in transition. We have to make sure we box out in all those situations.
"They had real good success last year and lost some key guys. You have to give Coach (Ken) McDonald a lot of credit for coming in, regrouping, taking what he had, mixing in a couple new guys and having a pretty good squad. They had some good wins early, and then they had some tough losses early. It seems like they've put it together.
"It's a group that believes in themselves and seems to find a way to win. The South Alabama and North Texas games in their tournament, it looked like the other team was coming back and took the lead, and they found ways to win both of those games. That to me was very impressive. They're smart and they know how to win, especially close games.
"They're a little bit undersized at the four spot, but they do have a little more bulk and strength and quickness. They have an advantage with quickness, and we have a little advantage with our big guys with length.
"We might have to go small against Western Kentucky, but we have some guys that have a little more confidence, and us in them, to go into the game and make a contribution."
Weber and his assistants have made their players acutely aware of how many so-called experts are predicting a Western Kentucky victory Thursday. CBS television's Seth Davis was the first, but he is certainly not alone.
"It was an easy, good motivator right away. Jay Bilas and some other guys have jumped on board with that. Our guys, even though we tell them not to watch and listen, they do. I hope it adds a little spark of fire in them. We're going to put the articles on a bulletin board, and the funny thing is we're having trouble finding anyone that's picking us.
"The 5-12 (game) has always had the upset. There are only four 12's, so you'd think one of them is gonna win. We're a logical one with Chester Frazier's injury and Western Kentucky's success this year and last year in the tournament. I'm not sure it means anything other than it helps get our guys focused and gets their attention. If so, it's a good thing for us."
It is a major accomplishment to get into the NCAA Tournament, especially with a team void of superstars. Illinois set a goal of reaching the Big Dance, but their goals don't end there according to center Mike Tisdale.
"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."