Wednesday, March 19, 2003

Western Ky. wants to make its mark

Illinois coach remembers the feeling

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. - Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton is doing what Illinois coach Bill Self helped do at Tulsa - turn a mid-major Division I program into a formidable basketball power. Problem is, teams know how good the Hilltoppers can be and don't want to play them during the regular season.

That's why the NCAA tournament gives Western a chance to shine - no one can dodge them once the field of 64 begins to play.

"The hard thing - and Dennis is going to struggle with this - is getting people to play you," said Self, whose Big Ten tournament champs face Western Kentucky on Thursday at Indianapolis in a West Regional opener.

"When you have a reputation like Western, there's not a lot of people that are calling Dennis to line up to play," Self said.

Self took Tulsa to two straight NCAAs before leaving for Illinois and now has the Illini in the tournament for the third straight season.

Illinois (24-6), led by Big Ten Player of the Year and tournament MVP Brian Cook, has won eight of its last nine after beating Northwestern, Indiana and Ohio State to take the conference's automatic bid. The Illini were second in the regular season to Wisconsin.

"Illinois has no weaknesses," Felton said. "They have as good a chance of advancing to the Final Four as any team in the field."

Illinois has a tall order in the West, however, with Arizona, Kansas and Duke also in the regional.

First, however, is dealing with a good Western Kentucky (24-8) team that is playing in its third straight NCAA tournament.

Felton said there is one similarity between the teams -they run the same motion offense because he learned it from Self at a coaching clinic several years back.

"After watching tape on them, they run it better than we do," Self said. At least the Illini know what to expect.

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