Illini Draw Tough First-Round Matchup with Western Kentucky

Aren DowCorrespondent IMarch 16, 2009

Illinois has had their share of troubles this past week.

Losing senior point guard Chester Frazier to injury, then falling to Purdue in the Big Ten semifinals, and culminating with a five seed in the NCAA Tournament and a matchup against Western Kentucky.

The same Western Kentucky that pulled off a thrilling 5-12 upset over Drake last year, 101-99.

For Illini fans that know nothing about Western Kentucky except this fact, as I did, here is a short breakdown.

This WKU team is not the exact team as last year, as three starters left after last season. However, several current players still have tournament experience.

Junior A.J. Slaughter leads the Hilltoppers with 15.8 points per game, able to score inside and outside.

Senior Orlando Mendez-Valdez is a pure three-point shooter, jacking up 224 shots behind the arc and converting over 40 percent this season.

Hearing over and over from the committee they were evaluating the entire body of work, Western Kentucky had the out-of-conference schedule that put them ahead of the rest of the conference champions.

Scheduling four games against teams from the "Big Six" conferences, the Hilltoppers won half. One of those included a 68-54 victory against overall No. 1 seed Louisville, in a neutral-site game. They also bested Georgia and mid-major Southern Illinois.

Although those wins look awfully impressive, none were played on the road. When the Hilltoppers did venture into opposing arenas, they had a much tougher time. In fact, Western Kentucky had three games on the road where they lost by at least 28 points (Murray State, Mississippi State, and Florida State).

The Hilltoppers closed strong, winning the last seven games and the Sun Belt Championship.

On the other side, Illinois has struggled all year to shoot the ball consistently. Sophomore Demetri McCamey, the Illini's leading scorer, has three games this year without a field goal and senior Trent Meachem can be just as inconsistent.

Fortunately for the Illini, they have a huge size advantage over Western Kentucky. The 7'1" Mike Tisdale and the 6'9" Mike Davis should be able to control the inside, as WKU has only one player, 6'9" Jeremy Evans, that is taller than 6'5".

While Illinois has to work the inside, Western Kentucky has to score from beyond the arc. Illinois relied heavily on their defense this season, and with Frazier questionable for the game, WKU has to take advantage of this if they want to pull the upset.

Jeff Jordan, Frazier's replacement for the Big Ten tournament, has done as much as you could ask of a sophomore backup. He had six assists and only one turnover in the tournament, including promptly stealing the ball after the turnover.

If Jordan does start again, he needs to keep his nerves under control and turnovers limited.

Even with Jordan playing okay, he lacks intangibles that Frazier brought. With Frazier not handling the ball in the Big Ten tournament, the backcourt continued to take awful shots.

Davis needs to step up as he did in the Michigan game, and as an emotional player I believe Davis will come out firing.

The site benefits neither team as Portland is more than a short distance for both teams. Perhaps some Purdue fans will help support their fellow conference team, but that is probably just wishful thinking.

This game is the most popular 5-12 upset that I have seen. Without Frazier, it could very well happen. If Frazier is ready to play, I don't see the Hilltoppers standing a chance.

Putting Frazier on Mendez-Valdez would be great for the Illini. It would force Western Kentucky to find someone else to shoot from outside, or try to score down low against Tisdale and Davis.

Bruce Weber has coached this team to a place no one expected them to be this year. For Illini fans, hopefully he can keep the surprises coming.