MEN’S BASKETBALL: Hilltoppers have tough task in Fightin’ Illini

Michael Casagrande

Dennis Felton and his Hilltoppers are hoping the third time is in fact, the charm.

After losing in the opening game of the past two NCAA Tournaments, Western will take on Big Ten Tournament champion Illinois today in hopes of exorcising past demons.

The NCAA opening round game will tip off at 6:10 p.m. at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and is scheduled to air on CBS.

While earning the Sun Belt NCAA automatic bid the two previous seasons, Felton thinks this year’s opportunity to advance is the sweetest of the three.

“This season has been extremely gratifying,” Felton said. “I’m as proud of this team as any I’ve coached. They endured as much as any team in the country and still got back to the tournament.”

The Toppers will have to endure the Fighting Illini and National Player of the Year candidate Brian Cook if they hope to advance to the round of 32.

Senior forward Nate Williams relishes the role as an underdog going into the NCAA.

“I think we have been underdogs all season,” Williams said. “We lost two key players earlier this year and nobody thought we could pull off what we pulled off.”

To those who doubt the Toppers, Williams has a simple message: “Just watch and see.”

Even with most experts picking the Toppers to fall in the first round, Felton does not think the situation, the setting or the opponent will intimidate his team.

“I don’t think we’ll be wide-eyed,” Felton said. “This is our third straight year playing in a dome against a very good team. We have aspirations of advancing just like all the other teams. We’ve been disappointed that we haven’t advanced.”

Last season, the Toppers fell to Stanford, 84-68 in the first round.

In 2001, Western led Florida most of the game, but the Gators took charge late en route to a 69-56 win.

Western has a 15-19 (44.1 percent) record all-time in the NCAA Tournament.

The last NCAA Tournament victory for the Hilltoppers came in 1995, against another Big Ten team, Michigan. The 82-76 overtime victory propelled Western into the second round where they fell to Kansas.

Tony Mejia of CBSsportsline.com is picking Western to knock off the Illini. In fact, Mejia not only thinks Western will beat Illinois, he predicts a second round Topper upset of Notre Dame to set a rematch with Arizona. The Wildcats dismantled Felton’s crew 107-68 on Nov. 23 in Tucson.

Today’s game will be played in the 37,004-seat RCA Dome, but senior forward David Boyden would rather play the game in a smaller venue, similar to Diddle Arena.

“I’d much rather play in an arena because I think it’s a much better atmosphere for college basketball,” he said. “A dome is full of wide open space and the crowd isn’t quite as loud, but it’s still an amazing experience.”

Heading into the game, Western actually will have more NCAA experience than Illinois in the starting line ups. The Toppers are projected to start four seniors and a sophomore, all oh whom have played in the NCAA Tournament.

Illinois, on the other hand, is expected to start three freshmen, and a sophomore to compliment Cook, a senior.

Coming off the bench, Western will rely on a trio of freshmen that have matured quickly after losing Chris Marcus and Todor Pandov before the season got into full swing.

Sun Belt Freshman of the Year Anthony Winchester has had the hot shooting hand, and fellow newcomer Jamaal Brown provided another inside presence during the Sun Belt Tournament.

The back court battle between sophomore Patrick Sparks and Illinois’ freshman Dee Brown will be one to watch on Thursday.

Illini coach Bill Self notices parallels between the two guards, but won’t consider them mirror images of each other.

“I think they are similar,” Self said. “Sparks is more of a threat from behind the arc and he can really get the ball in the paint and find his guys.”

But it will be the battle in the paint that concerns Western the most. The 6-10 Cook is averaging 20.1 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Williams and Boyden will hope to contain Cook, despite each giving up two inches.

“I think we do the same thing that got us here, playing the best defense and rebounding aggressively,” Williams said.

Reach Michael Casagrande at [email protected]