Illini smiling about No. 5 seed in NCAA Tournament

Though Illinois was all but guaranteed to notch an NCAA Tournament berth, Illini head coach Bruce Weber still had some butterflies fluttering in his stomach as he watched the CBS Selection Sunday show with his team.

But after about 35 minutes, CBS host Greg Gumbel called out Illinois as the No. 5 seed in the South Regional.

“I don’t think we could be more excited about getting a five seed,” Weber said. “Down the stretch you just never know. If you listen to too much people on TV you start thinking and outthinking yourself.

“I’ve been through it, I don’t know, 22 times, and as they keep coming up on the board you get more nervous and the knot gets tighter and you have to walk around. It was good to finally pop up.”

This is the ninth NCAA Tournament for Illinois in the past 10 seasons, but it will be the first Big Dance experience for all but three Illini: Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock.

“It’s my first time. I’m excited,” sophomore Mike Davis said. “I didn’t think I was going to be this excited, but I can’t stop smiling right now. I’m excited to play.

“I thought we were going to slip a little bit farther down (in the seeding). I was happy we got that five seed.”

Western Kentucky (24-8) will await Illinois (24-9) in the first-round matchup in Portland, Ore., on Thursday. In last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Hilltoppers defeated No. 5 seed Drake 101-99 on a last-second 3-pointer to advance to the second round, where they defeated No. 13 seed San Diego to make an improbable Sweet 16 appearance.

Western Kentucky lost to eventual Final Four team UCLA 88-78.

The Hilltoppers clinched an automatic NCAA Tournament appearance by winning the Sun Belt Conference Tournament. Western Kentucky upset the NCAA Tournament’s No. 1-overall seed Louisville 68-54 in Nashville, Tenn., a neutral site, on Nov. 30.

“Those kids, a lot of them have the opportunity to play in the tournament and be successful in the tournament,” Weber said. “So you know that gives them a little bit of an advantage.”

Weber talked briefly with the Southern Illinois-Carbondale coaches after learning his team’s seeding for a scouting report on Western Kentucky. The Salukis beat the Hilltoppers 79-70 in Bowling Green, Ky., on Nov. 26.

Illinois, one of seven Big Ten teams to make the tournament, is only two years removed from its last NCAA Tournament appearance, when the No. 12-seeded Illini fell 54-52 to No. 5-seeded Virginia Tech. But the wait has felt much longer for Weber.

“Just again to be back in the tournament, it was only one year without it but it felt like forever for me,” Weber said. “I hope (the players) feel the same way … Our whole group is deserving of the opportunity we have.”