From MJ’s house to his home

Illinois´ James Augustine looks to pass while being guarded by South Dakota State´s Michael Loney in the first half of the Nov. 18 game at Assembly Hall. Augustine had 18 points in Illinois´ season opener, which they won, 90-65. Adam Nekola

Illinois´ James Augustine looks to pass while being guarded by South Dakota State´s Michael Loney in the first half of the Nov. 18 game at Assembly Hall. Augustine had 18 points in Illinois´ season opener, which they won, 90-65. Adam Nekola

By Courtney Linehan

Illini fans are going to get used to seeing No. 23.

The digits looked down from the rafters of the Dean Smith Center as the men’s basketball team defeated North Carolina in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge on Tuesday, and they will be hanging in the United Center when the team travels to Chicago to take on Xavier this weekend.

Illinois hopes to have Jordan-like success in jumping from the home of the Tar Heels to the house Mike built. After topping the basketball legend’s alma mater 68-64, the Illini will look to improve on their 6-0 record.

“We always do well there,” forward James Augustine said. “We always play well, and we have a good fan base up there, so it’s like we’re playing at Assembly Hall. We’ve got to take the crowd with us and hopefully play well.”

The team needs more than the crowd to keep it on top of its game. After allowing North Carolina to lead for most of the second half, the team came together – led by Brian Randle’s 3-point shooting and a pair of Dee Brown free throws – to overcome the reigning national champions.

“I was more ready to play than a lot of people expected,” Randle said. “Personally, I did a lot of things that worked out for me.”

The Illini will need to be on again Saturday. While Xavier is unranked, the players say they know the perennially strong program will still pose a threat.

“I was watching ESPN one night and they said they’re one of the most underrated teams in the country,” Randle said. “Year in and year out they’re a pretty strong school, so we’re going to have our hands full.”

Weber said he got a shot of confidence in the team when it beat North Carolina after struggling at home against Texas Pan-American, “stealing” the win against Wichita State and coming back to play “pretty good basketball” against Rutgers.

While the United Center game is technically a home contest, it will be another neutral site – and the coach says this won’t be an easy victory.

“One thing I’ve emphasized since Saturday after the Rutgers game is no matter what happened in the UNC game, we’ve got to be ready to play Xavier,” Weber said. “Win or lose, we’ve got to come back ready to play. We’ve got a sellout crowd up in Chicago, so hopefully the kids will have the same energy we had (against North Carolina).”

But Chicago-area native Brown said the excitement of playing in front of a larger crowd of Illini fans, and doing it in the home of the NBA Championship teams he and other players watched as kids, is big incentive.

“I love playing up there in front of the Chicago fans,” Brown said. “It’s always good to have so many fans up there showing so much love. It’s almost like we’re their second team up there, with the Bulls. It’s wonderful.”