Previewing Illinois

North Carolina has passed each test with flying colors thus far en route to a stunning 5-0 start, but tonight the Tar Heels will face Ilinois at Assembly Hall, with a 9:35 p.m. tipoff on ESPN2.<br><center> (<a target=new href="">INTERNET BROADCAST</a>) - (<a target=new href="">LIVE STATS</a>)</center>

North Carolina vs. Illinois
Assembly Hall (16,500) - Champaign, Ill.
9:35 p.m., ESPN2 (Dave Barnett on play-by-play, Bill Raftery on color).

They've rallied from a double-digit deficit, upset the No. 2 team in the nation, played in a big-time arena and overcome a lack of height against two elite teams.

Tonight, the Tar Heels are presented with their toughest challenge to date -- playing a talented, deep, athletic, Top 25 team on their hostile turf.

"I'm looking forward to making the trip to Illinois tonight to face a tough team -- a Top 25 team -- that is extremely well coached," UNC head coach Matt Doherty said. "To me, they have the best player in the country in Brian Cook. It's going to be another challenge for our young team that's had a lot of challenges so far."

And Brian Cook presents the biggest challenge for Carolina tonight.

"Cook is going to be a good pro," Doherty said. "He can really shoot the basketball. He's 6-10, 240, but he shoots the ball like a guard. He catches it, and if he's open, there is no hesitation. He handles it like a guard. He posts up with moves over each shoulder. I really admire his hands and his touch. He's a tough match-up for anybody in college basketball."

With the loss of three important players from a year ago, the Illini are hoping Cook can carry the load.

"The last two years we had a much more balanced group where we would run the offense for the open man to take the open shot," Illinois head coach Bill Self said. "This year, every one of our players will look to Brian to be the main point producer on the team. We'll run more through him than we have for any individual in the past."

While Self's squad may lack any additional big names, they don't lack additional talent. The team has gone 11 deep into the roster through three games, with some freshmen making an immediate impact.

In the backcourt, the loss of Frank Williams and Corey Bradford required that Self start two freshmen in their places. Dee Brown and Deron Williams are both point guards, but bring different skills to the lineup.

"Dee is as quick as anybody in the nation, can really handle the ball and is a great shooter," Self said. "Deron has point guard skills and is big enough to guard any of the perimeter positions."

The Illini have played -- and won -- three games this season, winning by an average of 39 points ... though they've yet to be tested by quality competition. Lehigh, Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Western Illinois aren't exactly high-major opponents.

But there's no denying the talent on the Illinois roster, and it will take quite a Tar Heel effort to leave Champaign with a win.

"We had one true road game at Old Dominion with 8,000 people, opening up an arena in a hostile environment," Doherty said. "Our kids reacted well. This is going to be different. There will probably be twice as many people there, 15,500? Almost twice as many fans--all due respect to Old Dominion--and better players. Brian Cook is one of the best players in the country, along with some talented players. Roger Powell is a kid we got to know while at Notre Dame. He's really a good player. Nick Smith is playing well... They have good players. It will be different than the Old Dominion game. It will be a heck of a test for us."

Illinois in 2002-2003
11/27 - Lehigh - W, 90-56
11/24 - Arkansas-Pine Bluff - W, 96-43
12/1 - Western Illinois - W, 85-56

Location: Champaign, Ill.
Conference: Big Ten
Nickname: Fighting Illini
Colors: Orange & Blue
Head Coach: Bill Self
Record at UI: 56-17

Last year
Record: 26-9
Conference record: 11-5, t-1st
   Lost in NCAA Sweet 16
Key personnel losses:
   Frank Williams (6-3 PG) – 16.2 ppg, 4.4 apg
   Corey Bradford (6-3 G) – 11.6 ppg
   Robert Archibald (6-11 C) – 10.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg
   Damir Krupalija (6-9 F) – 7.0 ppg, 4.7 rpg
Probable Starting Lineup: 
   Dee Brown (6-0, G, Fr.) – 11.7 ppg, 5.3 apg
   Deron Williams (6-3, G, Fr.) – 9.7 ppg, 4.0 apg
   Roger Powell (6-6, F, So.) – 15.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg
   Brian Cook (6-10, F, Sr.) – 17.0 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 2.7 bpg
   Nick Smith (7-2, C, S0.) – 6.7 ppg, 3.3 rpg
Key Reserves: 
   James Augustine (6-10, F, Fr.) – 9.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg
   Luther Head (6-3, G, So.) – 11.0 ppg
   Sean Harrington (6-3, G, Sr.) – 8.3 ppg
   Kyle Wilson (6-8, F, Fr.) – 8.3 ppg
   Blandon Ferguson (6-3, G, Sr.) – 5.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg
   Aaron Spears (6-9, C, Fr.) – 5.0 ppg, 2.0 rpg
Photo Gallery

Deron Williams ... Roger Powell

Brian Cook ... Nick Smith

Sean Harrington ... Bill Self

(Photos by the Associated Press.)

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