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March 18, 2006

Illini present huge hurdle in quest for Sweet 16

As one of the 32 teams still standing in the Big Dance, the Huskies could count their blessings on St. Patrick's Day. Yet faced with the challenge of Illinois in the second round, the word "lucky" doesn't come to mind. The battle-tested Fighting Illini stand between Washington and a trip to the Washington, D.C., Regional. The 2005 NCAA Tournament finalists finished second in the combative Big Ten this season and feature enough big bodies to block anyone's path. But nobody said the road to the Final Four was a bed of four-leaf clovers.

The realities of sliding down to a No. 5 seed means the Huskies face a significantly tougher second-round foe than last year's eighth-seeded Pacific team. For the seventh consecutive year, the Illini earned a No. 5 seed or better and have advanced to the Sweet 16 four of the last five years. The good news is that the Illini tribe no longer includes scoring sensation Luther Head and point guard Deron Williams, mainstays in their drive to the national championship game. The bad news is they're as tall as the Chicago skyline.

Illinois (26-6) personifies the Big 10 reputation for strong interior basketball. Led by 6-foot-10 senior James Augustine, the frontline includes 6-10 center Shaun Pruitt and 6-8 swingman Brian Randle. Augustine, who averages 13.5 points and 9.3 rebounds a game, recently became the first Illinois player with 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in his career. In the first-round grounding of Air Force, Randle scored 15 points and grabbed 7 boards to complement Augustine's 10 points. With the addition of 6-9 junior Warren Carter, the frontline combined for a well-balanced 45 points on 19-of-26 (.731) shooting. The quartet dominated the scrappy Falcons inside as the Illini led by double-digits for the majority of the second half. The trey-oriented Falcons scored nine points in an 11-second span of the last minute to cut the count to a deceptively-close 78-69 final.

The Huskies won't have the luxury of focusing on one post player as they did against Utah State's Nate Harris. The 6-foot-7 forward had a first-half double-double before finishing with 19 points and 14 rebounds, the most by a Husky opponent this season. While the Illini present a different type of attack than the Aggies, who used a number of backcuts and screens to free up Harris, it goes without saying that the UW post defense will have to improve from Thursday night.

The biggest concern from the first round was Utah State's 35-22 rebounding advantage, the widest margin of the year against the Huskies. Washington, which prides itself on tenacious board work, only collected five offensive rebounds Thursday, when more than 60 percent of their first-half shots bounced off the rim. The Aggies' own first-half inaccuracies contributed to their rebounding totals as did the UW's pressure defense, but the count was troubling for a team that led the Pac-10 in rebounding margin. Illinois is even stronger up front than the Bruins, whose healthier lineup outrebounded the Huskies by eight in the Seattle rematch.

"If we're going to put ourselves in a position to have a chance on Saturday, we're not going to be able to get outrebounded by 13 and do it," said assistant coach Jim Shaw. "They're a terrific four-seed. I think a lot like Louisville last year, you look at them and think, 'Four-seed?'"

Dee Brown, who was dubbed "the one-man fast break" last year opposite Williams, has moved to the point this campaign in Champaign. After breaking his foot over the summer, he's settled in and averaged a team-leading 14.4 points and 5.6 assists prior to the Tournament. The second-team All-American piloted the attack versus Air Force with nine assists and a career-high nine rebounds, but was held to single-digit points (eight) for the third time in the last five games. Nonetheless, the lightning quick guard set the Illini record for most career points in the NCAA Tournament (164).

"We've been watching Illinois the past two-three years," said Brandon Roy, whose basketball knowledge extends to the national scene. "I'm a big fan of their point guard Dee Brown-he may not know that-but I think he's a great player and the heart and soul of that team. He's the first player we've got to try and stop."

While there will be comparisons between Brown, the senior catalyst, and Justin Dentmon, the freshman from Carbondale, Ill., the assignment on Brown may fall to Bobby Jones, who did an impressive job on the Aggies' point David Pak. But the size issue might necessitate Jones staying on Randle, with Roy handling some of the duties on Brown.

Dentmon originally signed a letter of intent with Illinois State, but headed to prep school instead after his SAT score fell short of qualification. Illini head coach Bruce Weber, who took Carbondale's Southern Illinois to the Big Dance in 2003 and 2004 before taking the job in Champaign, showed some interest in JD, but didn't pull the trigger after he qualified.

"Once they could sign me, they didn't try," said Dentmon, who had a solid tourney debut. "I wanted to go to a program where I could play right away, and when I heard Dee Brown was staying, it threw me off."

Coach Lorenzo Romar was quick to praise his 5-foot-11 point, who hit 3 of 4 shots from 3-point range versus the Aggies in a turnover-free 32 minutes. "He controlled the ball. He played good defense," said the head Husky. "He did a tremendous job. It gives you a lot of comfort and confidence when you know you have a freshman like that who you will have for the next few years, who can come in and play like that in his first NCAA Tournament game."

Dentmon will have an on-court reunion with his former AAU teammate, Jamar Smith. The 6-foot-3 freshman came off the bench Thursday to tie a career high with six treys, four of which came in the final 14 minutes as the Illini pulled away.

"I was watching Illinois (Thursday) and this team is good enough-hopefully we can derail them-but they're good enough to go to the Final Four again," said Shaw. "They have a great point guard. They have a slew of big bodies. Their big bodies can score inside. And their freshman (Jamar Smith) has emerged for them to give them maybe what might have been their only concern or question mark-a consistent outside shooter. Not to take anything away from UCLA, but they may be the best team we've played all year."

Given the fact that inside points against Illinois' length are as common as a warm winter in the upper Midwest, 3-point shooting could be a deciding factor for the Huskies. If they can hit more than a half-dozen, their chances will improve dramatically. It's doubtful they'll get as many open looks as they did in sinking a dozen against Utah State. Ryan Appleby, who may be suffering some repercussions with his vision following the blow to the face, hit just 1 of 7 attempts in the first round. If he can get back on track, the outcome might be sunnier Saturday afternoon.

"I think the key for us is stopping them from running and the transition defense, making them play some halfcourt basketball," said Weber, whose team is no stranger to pushing the ball themselves. "Not that they're bad at it, but they're just so much more effective in transition. Some of that will be taking care of the basketball. If they get steals and run-outs, we're going to be in trouble."

Weber will likely try and drape the lanky Randle on Roy in an attempt to shut down the Husky scorer, who is now averaging 20.2 points a game for the season, the most by a Husky since Chris Welp in 1987. Any scoring out of Jamaal Williams, who has struggled with some taller defenders, would be a bonus. The 6-foot-6 forward set a Husky NCAA tourney record with five steals versus USU. The previous record was held by current assistant coach Paul Fortier, who had four against Dayton in 1984. The Huskies set the team record with a total of 11 swipes. The turnover margin will be another stat to keep an eye on.

The magic number might be 70. The Illini, who average 70.2 points per game on the season, are 17-0 when scoring 70 or more. The Huskies are 16-0 when holding their opponents under 70 points. And Illinois has one fatal flaw worth mentioning: they finished the season ranked No. 13 in the final AP poll. Washington is 3-0 versus ranked teams, having knocked off UCLA twice as well as Gonzaga.

"We're just excited for the opportunity to play against a big-time program," said Roy. "They were in the national championship last year and they have a chance to try and do that again. But we feel like if we play good basketball and solid defense, we have a chance to win the game."

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