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."
Background 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 Postseason: 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 rpgPhoto Gallery
Deron Williams ... Roger Powell
Brian Cook ... Nick Smith
Sean Harrington ... Bill Self
(Photos by the Associated Press.)