Illini faces FD WHO

By Lisa Koulias

Before brackets were announced during Selection Sunday, Illini fans were curious to see who their No. 1 team’s first opponent would be.

As Illinois’ name appeared at the No. 1 seed, the team and fans learned that No. 16-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson would be matching up with the Illini today.

Fans still don’t know who the Illini are playing, as this small school from Teaneck, N.J., hasn’t garnered even a shred of the media attention the Illini have.

But while the Knights knew they would be in the tournament – they earned an automatic bid by capturing the Northeast Conference Tournament title – they never expected to be playing the top rated team in the bracket.

“I was shocked that they put us against Illinois,” said Fairleigh Dickinson head coach Tom Green. “I’m a member of the USA Today poll and I turned in my ballot and I put them as the number one team in America. I was sitting there looking at my ballot after I filled it out, saying ‘two, three, four, five, six, seven – we’ll be playing one of those teams, but we won’t be playing Illinois.’

“So I was very surprised that they had us against the number one team in America. It’s a huge challenge, to say the least, but we’re going to prepare our team as best as we possibly can and do everything we can to win the game.”

The Knights enter the NCAA tournament for only the fourth time in program history, as their last appearance came in 1998.

Fairleigh Dickinson is coming off a trio of post-season wins for the NEC tournament crown after finishing in second place in the regular season.

“They have to be a quality team to get into the NCAA tournament,” said Illinois head coach Bruce Weber.

The Knights, who rank second in the NEC in scoring with 74.3 points per game, are led by junior forward Gordon Klaiber, senior guard Tamien Trent and junior guard Chad Timberlake.

Trent, who was named NEC Tournament MVP and a second-team all-NEC pick, ranks sixth in the conference in scoring (15.8 ppg.), third in assists (5.5), fourth in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.78) and 11th in free throw shooting (.750).

Klaiber, a first team All-NEC pick, ranks seventh in the conference in scoring (15.8), while Timberlake ranks 12th in the conference in scoring (13.4).

“They have some pretty good athletes,” Weber said. “They do like to go up and down. If you look at their scores, they gave Arizona State a pretty good game out there, 89-81. So you can tell from that they like to score a lot of points.”

Senior guard Mensah Peterson and sophomore center Andrea Crosariol also are huge competitors for the Knights. Peterson missed last season due to injury, but contributes 7.6 points per game.

Crosariol, a seven-foot center, adds 7.8 ppg and 5.1 rpg, while leading the league in blocks (1.62) and ranking third in field goal percentage (.590). He earned All-Tournament honors after scoring 18 points in the Championship game.

Green, in his 22nd year with the Knights, says the team’s game plan is to stay close and play competitively.

When asked how his team will prepare for the Illini, Green answered: “Well, after we bring in the tanks and the armor?”

But in all seriousness, Green will be watching tapes, looking for ways to give his team a shot at an upset.

“In the next two hours we’ll have four or five videotapes on them so we’re going to have to really go through them with a fine tooth comb,” Green said. “They obviously don’t have very many weaknesses, so it’ll be a real challenge for sure.”