MEN’S BASKETBALL: Illinois up first for Hilltoppers

Amber North

They waited and waited, their anticipation growing into frustration as hundreds of Western basketball fans glared at the Diddle Arena Pepsi Vision screen Sunday afternoon.

They fidgeted in their seats as they saw the NCAA tournament Midwest, South, and East brackets fill up with teams not named Western Kentucky University.

Finally they got what they wanted when the West region’s No. 4 seed Illinois’ opponent was unveiled: No. 13 Western.

Some fans like freshman Nicole Gilpin were disappointed that Western would not have the chance to play Louisville, who balked at the opportunity to play the Hilltoppers this season.

“I was really looking forward to playing Pitino because he didn’t want us in the regular season,” said Gilpin, who is from Louisville. “I was really disappointed that we weren’t even in the same bracket as Louisville.”

There were also some fans who thought Western deserved a higher seed.

“I thought the guys would at least get a (No.) 12-seed, maybe an 11 after I started seeing who all were getting the higher seeds,” Bowling Green senior Matt Foster said. “The fact that we’re in the West (with seven top 25 teams in the region) is pretty bad, too.”

But Hilltoppers’ head coach Dennis Felton isn’t complaining.

“I’m just happy to know who we’re playing now and what our schedule is,” he said. “We feel very, very gratified in our locker room because we know how difficult it is to win a game and we know how special it is to be able to make it back to the national tournament.”

After losing All-American Chris Marcus and junior forward Todor Pandov, Western still finished as Sun Belt Conference champions.

Pandov never doubted his team would earn their third consecutive NCAA bid.

“I’ve always had confidence in my teammates, and I knew that even without me they could make it to the NCAAs,” Pandov said. “It was just a matter of readjusting in the lineup.”

After losing in the first round their first two bids (to Florida in 2001 and Stanford last year), the Hilltoppers want this year to be the year to advance to the second round or higher.

“We have our sights set a lot higher than that,” Felton said. “We’re just like any other team in the tournament — we want to make it all the way to the end.”

Seniors David Boyden and Nate Williams have the same goal. With this being their final year, they are coming into the tournament hungry.

“We’re kind of anxious and well-prepared to play because the last two years we’ve lost, and we want to be the team, of my senior year, to advance,” Williams said.

Boyden added that he still has confidence in the team’s ability to advance, even though a lot of people wrote the team off earlier in the season.

Boyden and Williams, along with junior forward Caleb Halcomb, will be tested by Big Ten Player of the Year and senior forward Brian Cook, as Western sophomore guard Patrick Sparks goes head to head with Fightin’ Illini freshman Dee Brown.

“I think the important thing is to maintain the discipline on defensive rebounding that we had in the stretch of 13 games we ended up winning, being unselfish on the offensive end and everything else will take care of itself,” Boyden said.

Western will face the Fightin’ Illini at 6:10 p.m. Thursday in Indianapolis, Ind.

Reach Amber North at [email protected]