Illini earn No. 5 seed in NCAA Tournament; to play Western Kentucky in first round

John Supinie

Waiting for a few extra minutes on Selection Sunday was no big deal for the Illinois basketball team. Missing the NCAA Tournament last season for the first time in nine years felt like a lifetime for a proud program that expects to be there every March.

The Illini returned to the tournament with plenty of room to spare. Illinois (24-9) earned a No. 5 seed and will play No. 12 Western Kentucky (24-8) on Thursday (8:55 p.m., CBS) in a South Regional first-round game in Portland, Ore.

"I hope they're excited to be back,'' Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "It was only one year without it, but it seemed like forever for me. I hope they feel the same way.''

Illinois set a goal of reaching the Sweet 16 before the season. Outside the locker room, the Illini were considered underdogs to finish in the upper half of the Big Ten Conference standings, much less return to the NCAAs. But despite losing two of their top three scorers and their top two rebounders from last season, Illinois rode the sophomore class to a second-place finish in the Big Ten.

As he headed toward the selection show -- Illinois didn't see its name called until late in the bracket -- Weber wondered if his team would slip down in the seedings.

"People didn't pick us to even make the tournament at the beginning of the season, let alone a five seed,'' said Illini guard Chester Frazier, who missed the Big Ten Tournament with an injured right hand. "All the heat we took coming off that season last year, I'm proud of coach Weber and the guys for turning this thing around.''

The Illinois-Western Kentucky winner meets the winner between No. 4 Gonzaga and No. 13 Akron on Saturday. The winner from the four-team bracket advances to the South Regional semifinal in Memphis on March 27 and would expect to face top-seeded North Carolina.

"If you get to the Sweet 16, anything can happen,'' Weber said. "I've talked about scenarios. I hope they have high goals and big dreams. We'll see how it all unfolds.''

Illinois was one of seven Big Ten teams to reach the field. The Big East and the ACC also placed seven. The Big 12 and the Pac-10 each got six. Yet as the bracket was announced, CBS analyst Seth Davis called Illinois his early upset pick.

"He picked us as the No. 1 upset,'' Illinois forward Mike Davis said. "It's cool. They can hate on us. We'll go out there and show them how we can play.''

In fact, Weber likes any talk that will help him motivate a young roster.

"Any extra motivation I can get besides what I'm saying is helpful, no doubt about that,'' Weber said. "If anyone else wants to predict it, keep doing it. I'll use it.''

Western Kentucky returns three starters from a team that reached the Sweet 16 last season. The Hilltoppers won the Sun Belt Conference regular-season title and the conference tournament championship. Western Kentucky scored a 68-54 win over Louisville, the top seed in the NCAA field, in November. They’ve won 15 of their last 17 games and knocked off Southern Illinois, 79-70, in November.

Weber expected to get an in-depth scouting report from SIU coach Chris Lowery, a former Illini assistant.

"Western Kentucky is a quality team,'' Weber said. "When you look at their schedule, they played a lot of high major teams. Their most notable win was Louisville. People say it was early, but they beat them on a neutral court. From the quick call I had with the SIU guys, they shoot a lot of threes and they're guard-oriented. I hope we have a little bit of an advantage inside.''

Illinois defeated Western Kentucky in the NCAA first round in 2003. Weber began his career as a graduate assistant under Gene Keady at Western Kentucky in 1979-80. No matter the seed or the opponent, Illinois is happy just to be in the field after such a rough season a year ago.

"Chester was saying, 'Cut my cast off now,' '' Illinois center Mike Tisdale said. "Everyone was pretty excited.''

Frazier hoped to practice with the Illini on Monday and meet Tuesday with the team doctors, who were trying to come up with a solution for padding and supporting Frazier's hand after he underwent surgery Thursday. It still seems a long shot, but Frazier played with a torn medial collateral ligament in the NCAAs two years ago. While he must still dribble, catch pass and shoot, Frazier doesn't need a medical clearance, he said.

"I need a Chester Frazier clearance,'' Frazier said. "It's basically up to me. It's my career, my life and my hand. Nobody can tell me what to do with my body. It's the end of my career. I have to make the most of it.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.