Chapel Hill, N.C. - Dean E. Smith Center
9 p.m., ESPN-HD (Dan Shulman, Dick Vitale, Doris Burke)
"We're not defending [the title] because they can't take it away from us. It's going be ours regardless if they win tomorrow night or not so, it's not defending anything." -- David Noel
"It's a good matchup with a lot of implications. It's great television exposure against one of the elite programs in the history of college basketball. It would be special even if we hadn't played them in the national championship game." -- Bruce Weber
Don't Call It A Rematch: ESPN is trying to bill this as a rematch of last season's championship game, but with so few pieces of those two teams remaining, it's quite a stretch. While UNC lost the well-documented top seven, Illinois lost three starters and two reserves. "The teams are so different," Roy Williams said. "When we played them last year, David Noel scored one basket. That's the only scoring we have returning and no one else on our team scored a basket in that game."
Season To Date: Illinois is 5-0, now ranked 12th in the country. The schedule hasn't been challenging, with the Illini cruising to easy wins over South Dakota State, Texas-Pan American, Texas Southern and Rutgers - though Wichita State nearly pulled an upset last week. It took a game-winning layup as time expired by Warren Carter to avoid what would have been a stunning defeat. The final score was 55-54, even though Wichita State shot only 38.0 percent. So why was it so close? First, Dee Brown struggled from the field (3-14 FG, 2-9 3pt) and he's their go-to scorer on the perimeter. Second, the Illini attempted only four free throws. A more well-balanced offense is the key to Illinois' success this season.
Don't Blink: Seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine comprise the team's starpower. Brown is a lightening-fast scoring guard who has moved to the point this season. His assist-to-turnover ratio hasn't been impressive thus far (1.1) and his three-point shooting percentage (32.5%) is well off the pace of last season (43.4%). In other words, he's still getting comfortable in the point guard role, but with his all-American talent, he will be atop the priority list for UNC's defense.
In The Middle: James Augustine has been able to move to his more natural position of power forward this season, a far better fit for the agile 6-10 senior. He's efficient on offense -- again shooting well over 60 percent from the field this season -- and his mobility leads to easy scores. He also crashes the boards hard and frequently notches a double-double. In the title game last season against UNC, Augustine fouled out in only nine minutes of court time and did not score.
Three-Point Help: As noted above, Brown has struggled from long range this season, but a couple Illini have helped fill that void. Starting shooting guard Rich McBride (43%) and freshman Jamar Smith (44%) are putting up solid numbers from beyond the arc. As the Tar Heels have likely already noted in their scouting report, no one on Illinois beyond those three is a three-point threat.
New Faces: When five regulars depart, plenty of playing time emerges. While Brown and Augustine will see as much as possible, Rich McBride is the only other player back who played double-digit minutes last season. 6-8 sophomore wing Brian Randle, who redshirted last season due to injury, is emerging as a future star. As is the case with freshman Jamar Smith, who is providing much-needed offense off the bench. Just as UNC is wondering how its team will react to its first high profile test, Illinois is thinking the same thing. Players like Randle, Smith and starting center Shaun Pruitt have yet to prove themselves against high-major competition. "The teams are so new, I think both of us are trying to survive," said Illinois coach Bruce Weber.
Series History: This will be the seventh time that North Carolina and Illinois have met, as the Heels hold a 4-2 series advantage. This will also be the fourth straight season that the teams have played each other. In 2002-03, Illinois routed UNC at home, 92-65, to give Carolina's young team its first loss of the season. The teams met in 2003-04 in Greensboro, N.C., with UNC prevailing 88-81 thanks to a 23-point, 14-rebound performance by Sean May. And May was the star again in last season's meeting, scoring a game-high 26 points in the 75-70 national championship game victory.
Background Location: Urbana-Champaign, Ill. Enrollment: 36,738 Conference: Big Ten Nickname: Fighting Illini Colors: Orange & Blue Head Coach: Bruce Weber Record at UI: 68-9
Projected Starters: 11 Dee Brown (6-0, 185, Sr.) – 14.2 ppg, 4.0 apg, 2.0 spg 33 Rich McBride (6-3, 205, Jr.) – 10.8 ppg, 3.6 apg 42 Brian Randle (6-8, 215, So.) - 7.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg 40 James Augustine (6-10, 235, Sr.) – 15.4 ppg, 8.8 rpg 55 Shaun Pruitt (6-9, 225, So.) - 7.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg Key Reserves: 31 Jamar Smith (6-3, 175, Fr.) – 8.6 ppg, 1.8 apg 41 Warren Carter (6-9, 215, Jr.) – 6.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg 44 Marcus Arnold (6-8, 245, Jr.) – 3.0 ppg, 2.2 rpg 3 Chester Frazier (6-2, 190, Fr.) – 2.0 ppg, 2.8 apg
Brown ... Weber
Augustine ... Smith
Randle ... Carter
Pruitt ... McBride