Critics fuel Illini’s fire as they head to the NCAA Tournament

Seconds after the CBS Selection Show announced that Illinois was a No. 5 seed in the South region of the NCAA Tournament, CBS analyst Seth Davis declared to the national audience that he believes No. 12 seed Western Kentucky will upset the Illini in their first-round matchup.

There have been doubts about Illinois all season, and Illini head coach Bruce Weber likes it that way.

“I brought that up with the guys before we all left the room. It hasn’t even been on the board for 10 minutes and one of the major CBS guys already predicted Western Kentucky in the upset over Illinois,” Weber said. “I hope that’s extra incentive, and if anyone else wants to keep predicting it, please do it and I’ll keep using it.”

Most wondered if the Illini would make the NCAA Tournament heading into this season. Once Illinois finished its non-conference schedule with a 12-1 record, there were questions of whether the Illini could be a legitimate contender for the conference crown.

Even after a second-place finish in the Big Ten, new questions have emerged as to whether Illinois is strong enough to make any significant impact in the NCAA Tournament with senior point guard Chester Frazier’s health status up in the air.

“People didn’t really give us a chance once Jamar (Smith) left the team (in July), like we probably weren’t going to go back to the NCAA Tournament,” junior Dominique Keller said. “Now they think we’re not going to advance. We just got to go out and prove people wrong.”

Weber set a goal of 24 regular-season wins before the season, a pretty ambitious goal coming off a program-worst 16-19 record a season ago, especially with two of the team’s top-three leading scorers (Shaun Pruitt and Brian Randle) lost to graduation. The Illini hit that lofty mark with a Big Ten Tournament quarterfinal victory against Michigan on Friday.

“I thought we could be there,” Weber said. “I don’t think it was optimism or idealism. I just thought these guys worked at it. We have a system. If they believe in the system and execute it, you’re going to have success.”

Weber will head to his fifth NCAA Tournament in six seasons at Illinois. But this squad is the greenest he has taken to the Big Dance while in Champaign. Frazier (56 minutes), Calvin Brock (18) and Trent Meacham (13) are the only players with any tournament experience.

Despite his team’s March Madness naïveté, Weber feels confident his team can achieve its stated season-long goal of reaching the Sweet 16.

“My one SIU team (in 2002), we didn’t have anybody that had been in the NCAA (Tournament), and we got to the Sweet 16,” Weber said.

The Illini players realize their shortcomings, including inconsistency, little muscle in the post and the lack of a go-to player in the clutch. These weaknesses are why they gathered for a team meeting late Saturday night and into Sunday morning following their 66-56 loss to Purdue in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals.

Frazier called the meeting into Keller’s hotel room in Indianapolis. One-by-one, the team focused on how each player could improve heading into the tournament.

“Basically everybody gave it to everybody,” Keller said.

Keller was told he needs to be more physical. Center Mike Tisdale was advised to be a bigger factor on the boards and to not hang his head after miscues.

The meeting further differentiates last season’s divided Illini squad.

“This team, we’ve been together all year and that’s why we won,” Tisdale said.

“(Saturday) we got together. We just really had to let it all out, how we were feeling. We all had to get focused and let people know. We weren’t trying to be mean about it. We weren’t trying to criticize. We just felt what we needed to say. It was good for us. We all came out of there even closer together I think.”

Though Illinois has been pushed to the side all season, the Illini may have received their biggest sign of respect when the NCAA Tournament committee awarded the team with a No. 5 seed. Weber said he is confident of his team regardless of its seeding.

“If we play defense, play as a team, play with some emotion, we can compete with anybody in the country,” Weber said.

But many still don’t believe in the Illini. Seth Davis is just one of the commentators to express such doubt. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Tim Tucker, the Georgia beat reporter, picked a Western Kentucky upset.

But the lack of respect fuels the Illini. It has all season.

“We like it,” Tisdale said. “Nobody expects us to do much. Maybe we’ll be the underdog. We got nothing to lose.”