NCAA Tournament rookies lead Illini into Big Dance

John Supinie

Illinois guard Demetri McCamey might be a rookie when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, but the sophomore already sounds like he has it figured out.

"It's what you do from here,'' McCamey said. "If you lose in the first round, they forget how well you did in the regular season. They'll be watching the NCAA Tournament, and you won't be in it. We have to go out and play basketball.''

When fifth-seeded Illinois (24-9) opens play against 12th-seeded Western Kentucky (24-8) in a first-round South Regional game in Portland on Thursday (8:55 p.m., CBS), coach Bruce Weber has plenty of experience, but the Illini have little. The three sophomores that form the team's nucleus -- McCamey, Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale -- sat out last year's tournament, the first time in nine years Illinois didn't get into the field.

Only senior Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock logged time in Illinois' last NCAA appearance in 2007, a 54-52 loss to Virginia Tech when Illinois blew a double-digit lead as a No. 12 seed. They combined for six points against the Hokies.

Weber said he has been preparing for a tournament bid for three weeks.

"No matter what, we go there with a good mental approach and see what happens,'' Weber said. "I tell them to enjoy the opportunity. That's the most important thing. I was bringing up scenarios, our scenario with Virginia Tech. We were a 12. They were a five. We thought we should have won that game. It doesn't make any difference with seeding.

"I tried to start preparing them, making them start thinking about it. How you need to approach it. The excitement of it. If you have a letdown, you're done. I told them all along that your approach to it is so important.''

On the other bench, Western Kentucky has plenty of tournament minutes. After reaching the Sweet 16 last season by upsetting fifth-seeded Drake 101-99 and knocking off San Diego 72-63 in the second round before an 88-78 loss to top-seeded UCLA, Western Kentucky earned an NCAA bid by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament after taking the regular-season title.

"Those kids, a lot of them had an opportunity to play in the tournament and be successful in the tournament,'' Weber said. "That will give them an advantage.'' 

Three starters returned from a year ago, and they helped lead the Hilltoppers to a victory in November over Louisville, the NCAA's top seed.

"To win their league and win their tournament, they must have something to them,'' Weber said.

After the school's first appearance in the NCAA championship game in 2005, Illinois is 1-2 in the NCAAs. As a No. 4 seed in 2006, Illinois defeated Air Force and lost to Washington.

Before heading to the Ubben Basketball Complex for some film study on Western Kentucky, the Illini failed to hide their emotions.

"This is my first time,'' said Davis, the city kid from suburban Washington, D.C., who normally plays it cool. "I didn't think I would be this excited. I can't stop smiling right now. I'm excited to play.''

Tisdale came from a small school to the Big Dance.

"You wouldn't expect coming from Riverton to go to the NCAA Tournament,'' Tisdale said. "It seemed like forever before we saw our name. The commercials kept coming. We started thinking maybe they left us out.''

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