Illinois vs. Western Kentucky notebook: Mendez-Valdez a force to be reckoned with

John Supinie

The reloading process at Western Kentucky came under first-year coach Ken McDonald and senior guard Orlando Mendez-Valdez, a role player last season who became the Sun Belt Conference player of the year this winter.

Mendez-Valdez – whose No. 12 Western Kentucky takes on No. 5 Illinois Thursday in the NCAA Tournament's first round -- averaged 14 points a game after just 5.4 a year ago.

"Last year, I was a role player doing the little things behind the scenes,'' he said. "Running the team, doing the things that don't show in the stats, the enforcer who gets everybody together, setting the tone. This year is a more bigger role.''

Yet what makes the senior from San Antonio special is his knowledge of the game and making the big play. Mendez-Valdez didn't lead his team in scoring but still won his league's top honor.

"He's a throwback player,'' McDonald said. "He's not the quickest guy or jumps the highest. He really knows the game. If you watch him play over time, he sees the game. He knows how to read defenses and plays hard on the defensive end.

"To have the first triple-double in the history of Western Kentucky at his size is mind boggling.''

Mendez-Valdez had the first recorded the triple-double with 18 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds against Troy.

Big Ten love

After getting bashed by the national media, the Big Ten gets a chance to show what it's got with seven teams in the NCAA Tournament.

"For us to prove people wrong, we have to do something in the tournament,'' said Purdue guard Chris Kramer, who wasn't pulling for Illinois. "We're not worried about anybody else. It's all about Purdue. We're not going to root for anybody else. It's all about us advancing.''

Noteworthy

Illinois' single-game NCAA Tournament records are 31 points by Deron Williams (vs. Cincinnati, 2004), 16 rebounds by Nick Anderson (vs. Syracuse, 1989) and Brian Cook (vs. Notre Dame, 2003) and 12 assists by Kiwane Garris (vs. USC, 1997). … Only seniors Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock logged time in Illinois' last NCAA Tournament 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.

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