They criss-crossed the country, playing everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Seattle, from the United Center in Chicago to Scottrade in St. Louis. Coach Bruce
Weber and the Illinois basketball team logged 18 games against teams playing in the NCAA tournament, including eight against top four seeds. So when No. 9 Illinois meets No. 8 UNLV in the NCAA tournament Friday, there's no need to get cold feet, Weber told them.
TULSA, Okla. -- They criss-crossed the country, playing everywhere from Madison Square Garden to Seattle, from the United Center in Chicago to Scottrade in St. Louis. Coach Bruce
Weber and the Illinois basketball team logged 18 games against teams playing in the NCAA tournament, including eight against top four seeds.
So when No. 9 Illinois meets No. 8 UNLV in the NCAA tournament Friday, there's no need to get cold feet, Weber told them.
"We've played on big stages, been in big games, been on national TV,'' Weber said from a corner of the cramped corner of a steamy auxiliary locker room Thursday. "That's why you do all those things -- to prepare for this opportunity so you don't have stage fright and you come and play basketball.''
Illinois seeks its first NCAA win since 2006, and the Illini do so while attempting to bounce back from a horrible loss to Michigan in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament, where Illinois blew a 12-point lead in a little more than eight minutes. Confidence is a question, and not just from the fan base. Illini coaches felt getting an NCAA berth covered up any concern of a hangover, but it's apparent UNLV will smell blood in the water.
In a matchup with the Rebels and former Illini coach Lon Kruger, UNLV will make the Illini prove they can handle themselves and play tough now that March Madness has truly begun. A small, aggressive and athletic Rebels lineup plans to press, trap and harass Illini guard Demetri McCamey. UNLV plays small ball, and obviously they want to see if the Illini are tough enough.
"You have to make a taller team like that get out in transition and try to make a run,'' said UNLV sophomore guard Anthony Marshall. "We've just got to be a lot more physical, pressure them. I don't think they're used to seeing a defense that we're accustomed to playing in our conference.
"We have some new things to throw at them and try to make the uncomfortable and doing things they're not used to seeing done.''
A slight favorite by the Vegas oddsmakers, the Rebels would prefer a fast-paced game.
"The stage fright is more taking care of the basketball, do what you do all the time,'' Weber said. "They're aggressive, quick team. If you make a mistake, you make a mistake. Come back and make another play.''
UNLV will focus on stopping McCamey "early and not letting him get his confidence up,'' UNLV forward Chace Stanback said.
"Their whole (plan) is forcing turnovers and making you scared from the get go,'' said Illini forward Bill Cole.
On offense, the Rebels want to run whenever possible. They can also spread the court and dribble drive. Illini guard D.J. Richardson had plenty of experience with the UNLV system while playing at Findlay College Prep in suburban Las Vegas as a high school senior. Findlay's coach is a former UNLV staffer, and players from the two teams sometimes played in open gym together.
"We've got to clog the middle, make them shoot threes and stop them from getting inside the paint,'' Richardson said.
The Illini would prefer a more methodical pace. UNLV couldn't handle San Diego State's size, which includes former Illini Brian Carlwell, but the size vs. speed matchup is a tough one.
"You talk to coaches, and you'd rather have quickness than height and strength,'' Weber said. "You don't get to use the height if they out-quick you. If we take care of it, one of the keys will be playing inside-out. They've very aggressive to the ball. If we can speace them and get the ball inside with some penetration, if we make shots it will be to our advantage.''
Otherwise, it's a matchup of two proud progrms trying to get over the hump.
"You want to live your life saying, 'At least tell my kids I won one tournament game, two tournament games, three tournament games,' '' Illini senior Mike Davis said.
The Illini lost 10 of their last 16 games, but they were 8-10 against teams in the NCAA bracket.
"We have a chance to redeem ourselves for stuff we messed up in the regular season,'' Cole said. "You already saw how crazy March is.''
UNLV earned an NCAA bid for the fourth time in the last five years, but the Rebels seek their first tournament victory in three years, a long way from the glory days 20 years ago. The Rebels finished by winning six straight before a loss to San Diego State in the Mountain West Conference Tournament semifinals, one of five losses to the Aztecs and BYU, but they were also an up-and-down team that frustrated coaches and fans.
"This is a big platform for us to try to make a national statement,'' Marshall said.
John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com.
No. 9 Illinois (19-13) vs. No. 8 UNLV (24-8)
8:20 p.m., BOK Center, Tulsa (TBS, Illinois Sports Network)
F Mike Davis Sr. 6-9 12.0 7.1
F Bill Cole Sr. 6-9 5.0 2.5
C Mike Tisdale Sr. 7-1 10.1 6.4
G D.J. Richardson So. 6-3 8.1 1.8
G Demetri McCamey Sr. 6-3 14.8 3.4
F Chace Stanback Jr. 6-8 13.0 6.0
F Quintrell Thomas So. 6-8 6.6 5.2
G Tre'Von Willis Sr. 6-4 13.5 3.6
G Anthony Marshall So. 9.6 4.0
G Oscar Bellfield Jr. 6-2 11.1 2.5
Noteworthy: Illinois makes its 29th NCAA appearance, ranking 11th in the nation and trailing only Indiana's 35 appearances among Big Ten teams. Illinois makes its 10 appearance in the last 12 years and sixth in coach Bruce Weber's eight seasons, but Illinois appears only for the second in the last four years. ... UNLV 2-7 vs. teams in the NCAA bracket. ... UNLV opened the season with nine wins.
Key for Illini: Make UNLV pay for playing small ball.
Key for Rebels: Use their athleticism on both ends of the court.
Key quote: "We don't have to be heroes, do something we're not supposed to do. Go out there and be solid and play well.'' -- Illinois forward Mike Davis.
Prediction: UNLV 69, Illinois 66