Illinois looking to prove doubters wrong vs. Western Kentucky

John Supinie

Illinois still has some work to do.

With a surprising second-place finish in the Big Ten Conference, the Illini worked their way back into the NCAA Tournament after last year's miss -- a first for the program in nine seasons. Now comes the hard part.

When No. 5 Illinois plays No. 12 Western Kentucky on Thursday in a first-round game in the NCAA Tournament's South Region, the Illini face a one-game chance to put a seal of approval on the entire season and answer the critics who called them the bracket's most likely upset.

"We've had a good season,'' said Illinois coach Bruce Weber. "Our kids, to a man, have improved. Hopefully, the still have some hunger and want to have success. I gave them a goal to win 24 games. They got there. A couple weeks ago, I started prepping and jabbing them about not only getting to the tournament but doing something.

"I hope I hit the right buttons, got some minds opening up and thinking about it. I hope the season isn't judged on the one game. At the same time, it's an important game because everybody is watching.''

While dropping three of their last four games, losing guard Chester Frazier for the weekend because of a hand injury and wondering if guard Demetri McCamey is ready to go, the Illini appear vulnerable in the 5-12 matchup that annually produces first-day upsets.

No. 5 seeds are 19-13 in the first round over the past eight seasons. Western Kentucky and Villanova advanced to the Sweet 16 last season while seeded No. 12. The Hilltoppers defeated No. 5 Butler and No. 13 San Diego. The only high-profile bracketologists to pick the Illini were ESPN's Erin Andrews and President Barack Obama (so it's barack-etology).

"Shout out to both of them, especially Erin,'' said Illinois forward Dominique Keller. "I'd rather have those two in my corner than any other two.''

Frazier is unavailable this weekend after an examination Tuesday, and Weber gave no indication he would be ready if the Illini survived this weekend.

"There's too much damage to take a chance and play this week,'' Weber said. "Even after that, he tried to give it a go in practice Tuesday. He just doesn't have the strength or the hand mobility.''

That puts more weight on the shoulders of the sophomore class overall and guard Demetri McCamey in particular.

McCamey had no points and two assists with four turnovers in 20 minutes in a loss to Purdue in the Big Ten semifinals last weekend, so Purdue coach Matt Painter might have the best scouting report.

"They had something happen to them in the Big Ten Tournament where they lost their heart and soul,'' Painter said. "It's difficult when you have that void because their next guy isn't Chester Frazier. (Trent) Meacham has done a good job of making shots and as a defender. Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale have to be active and productive.

"Demetri McCamey has got to be ready to roll. When Demetri is on top of his game and playing well, Illinois is going to be a tough out. But if he's not making shots and he's not locked in, that's when I think you see some struggles with him.''

Like McCamey, the Illini haven't always had that fire. They exploded against Michigan on Friday, then fizzled vs. Purdue.

"You can't think that if you lose, it's over, but that's in the back of your mind,'' McCamey said. "You want to win and extend your season. You have to do things that got you here -- play Illinois defense, get it into the post to Tisdale and Davis.''

With a decided height advantage over Western Kentucky, Davis and Tisdale are expected to score. Western Kentucky has one starter over 6-5.

"We have to look to get the ball to the paint,'' Tisdale said. "Hopefully, we can get it inside and maybe do some damage.''

Meanwhile, the Illini also face the challenge of stopping Western Kentucky guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, the Sun Belt Conference player of the year who shot 40 percent from the 3-point line. Western Kentucky advanced to the Sweet 16 last season by defeating No. 5 Drake and No. 13 San Diego, enjoying the life of Cinderella before losing to UCLA in the regional semifinals. The Hilltoppers aren't used to the role of bracketology favorite.

"It's different,'' Mendez-Valdez said. "It's something that we don't like. We've always been the underdogs. We want to be the sleeper team to come out and do what we do, let it play out from there. I told the guys not to watch ESPN. We're going to come out focused.''

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

ILLINOIS VS. WESTERN KENTUCKY

No. 5 Illinois (24-9) vs. No. 12 Western Kentucky (24-8)

8:55 p.m. CDT, Rose Garden (19,570), Portland, Ore. (CBS, Illini Radio Network)

ILLINOIS (24-9)   ppg     rpg

C Mike Tisdale So. 7-1 10.5 4.1

F Mike Davis So. 6-9 11.2 8.1

G Demetri McCamey So. 6-3 11.5 2.7

G Trent Meacham Sr. 6-2 9.8 2.5

G Calvin Brock Sr. 6-5 5.0 3.0

WESTERN KENTUCKY (24-8)

F Steffphon  Pettigrew So. 6-5 12.7 5.1

F Sergio Kerusch So. 6-5 11.2 7.4

C Jeremy Evans Jr. 6-9 8.7 5.9

G A.J. Slaughter Jr. 6-3 15.8 3.1

G Orlando Mendez-Valdez Sr. 6-1 14.0 4.1

Noteworthy: Illinois makes its 28th NCAA Tournament appearance all-time after failing to earn a bid last season for the first time in nine years. The Illini are 38-28 all-time in NCAA play. … The Illini are 2-0 all-time against Western Kentucky, including a 65-60 win over the Hilltoppers in an NCAA first-round game in 2003 in Indianapolis. … Western Kentucky makes its 21st appearance and fifth in the last nine years. Western Kentucky is 17-21 all-time in the NCAAs and reached the Final Four in 1971. … When Western Kentucky swept the Sun Belt regular-season and conference tournament titles, it gave the Hilltoppers 41 conference championships all-time. They rank third nationally behind Kentucky and Kansas.

Key for Illini: Throw it inside to Tisdale and Davis. They should be able to score on the smaller Hilltoppers.

Key for Hilltoppers: Get good guard play. If Mendez-Valdez and Slaughter are scoring, it spreads out the defenses.

Quote: "Every guy gets to a point where they decide they want to be a player and make a commitment. This weekend and the next couple weeks, it would be good if he can turn it on and be consistent.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber, on Demetri McCamey.

Prediction: Illinois 67, Western Kentucky 60