Top team comes to play Illini

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By Lisa Koulias

Last Friday, Wake Forest played a close game against Arizona. The Demon Deacons came back from a 37-29 first-half deficit to beat the Wildcats 63-60 and keep their No. 1 ranking.

Tonight at 6, the Illini are looking to knock off the No. 1 team in the nation.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “We were happy that they won; we were cheering for them. You want to play the best and obviously it helps publicity-wise for TV. Since the game was announced last spring, it’s all anyone has talked about and now it’s right around the corner.”

The No. 3 Illini will suit up in orange to match the night’s theme, “Paint the Hall Orange,” as fans are encouraged to cheer for the Illini in all-orange attire.

The team hopes the atmosphere of Assembly Hall, combined with Illinois’ nation-best 66-3 home record since 1999, will help in its quest to take out Wake Forest.

“It’s just amazing, it’s a neat atmosphere,” Weber said. “There is a special hype, it adds a little incentive to it. It’s a fun thing for the kids and surely they shouldn’t need to get too hyped up; we are playing No. 1. Hopefully it will be a little intimidating (for Wake).”

Wake Forest head coach Skip Prosser knows his team is up for a challenge. Not only because they are playing one of the top teams in Illinois, but also because of the rowdy home crowd at Assembly Hall.

“I’ve not been to Assembly Hall,” Prosser said. “My understanding is, from people I know, that the fans are rabid, especially the students. It will be a sea of orange. It will be a tremendous challenge for our guys. That will be a tough, tough venue for us to play. You hope you are prepared for it, but I have heard nothing but great things about the students, especially and the crowd overall.

“As I told our players, I think we are going to find out a lot about our team in that environment. It’s going to be a cauldron of emotions. You are playing a very talented, experienced team in probably as tough as an environment as any venue in the country.”

While Weber is looking forward to tonight’s game because of all the excitement surrounding it, he also knows this game is not the end-all of Illinois basketball.

“Sure it’s exciting, it’s part of this whole thing being rated in the top 10,” Weber said. “It’s something you dream about, it’s a dream match-up. It’s a big game. This is a big exam, a big final to see where we stand.

“It’s not going to be the end of the season either way. Next week’s run with four games in eight days is just as important.”

Wearing his orange

After hearing a lot of grief about his tangerine-colored blazer, Weber will be sporting a new orange blazer for tonight’s game.

“I will be brighter orange – I will be shiny,” Weber said. “That thing is bright. I don’t even need to turn on the light in the closet to see it. Now no one can make fun of me for a tangerine-colored jacket.”

Game notes

Tonight’s game is only the second meeting between Illinois and Wake Forest. The teams first met in the 1998-99-season opener in New York’s Madison Square Garden as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Wake edged out the Illini in overtime by a score of 75-73.

Illinois will take on a No. 1-ranked opponent for the 21st time in school history tonight. The Illini hold a 1-19 all-time record against No. 1 teams, with their only win coming at home against Michigan State on Jan. 11, 1979. This win was the last time a No.1-ranked team visited the Assembly Hall.