SYRACUSE, N.Y. - More than 30,000 will enter the Carrier Dome for Sweet 16 night in the East Regional. They'll see No. 1 seed Maryland, seven-time champion Kentucky and 1999 titlist Connecticut.
Then there's Southern Illinois.
"People are going to think, what the hell are they doing here?" said Salukis center Rolan Roberts.
The same question was asked of Roberts when he showed up in Carbondale, Ill., in September 2000. He had spent the previous three seasons as a good player on some bad Virginia Tech teams, but his Hokies career ended after a campus judiciary board found him responsible of assault and sexual misconduct. Roberts was never prosecuted in a court of law, but his days in Blacksburg were numbered.
Hokies coach Ricky Stokes set about finding Roberts a place to finish his career, and called Bruce Weber at Southern Illinois. Stokes' wife and a female academic adviser vouched for Roberts, and Weber wanted him to know that they were sticking their necks out for him.
"I appreciate that our administration had confidence in me in the matter," Weber said. "I told Rolan, `You are on a year's probation, you are going to be living in a glass bubble, and if you don't do everything perfectly, you won't be able to play here.' "
Roberts is a frank speaker who backtracked after he said that a perk for one of this season's biggest Cinderellas included some "free CDs," an NCAA no-no. He has many opinions, but he knew little of Southern Illinois except that it's a five-hour drive south of Chicago, where his first-cousin, Zach Thornton, the former Loyola College star, plays goalie for Major League Soccer's Fire.
The Salukis hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1977, but their prospects were more promising than staying at Virginia Tech or taking a Division II scholarship.
"I had a few other Division I offers," said Roberts, a postgradate who earned a liberal arts degree last semester. "They wanted me to pay my own way."
Roberts, who turns 24 next month, had many more suitors coming out of Woodbridge (Va.) High. The Washington Post's Player of the Year in 1995-96, he moved on to Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, where he preceded Maryland's Lonny Baxter as one of the men in the middle at that prep school. Roberts was the first freshman in two decades to lead Virginia Tech in scoring and achieved third-team Atlantic 10 Conference status before he left the Hokies.
Roberts sat out last season but still paid dividends for Southern Illinois, as guard Kent Williams saw what the 6-foot-6, 240-pounder would bring to the table and stayed put instead of transferring. Williams' scoring average dropped to 16.0 points this season, but he still led the Salukis. A short but not undersized center, Roberts chips in 13.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game.
Weber spent 18 seasons as Gene Keady's right-hand man at Purdue. His team was one of the last at-large selections to the field, but it is usually first to the ball.
"Play Hard" is the message on the seat of the Salukis' practice shorts. While the members of college basketball's Fortune 500 took it easy at yesterday's public practices, Southern Illinois concluded by taking charges and diving for loose balls. It beat Indiana in December and didn't stop working last weekend in Chicago, where the 11th-seeded Salukis overcame 19-point deficits against Texas Tech and Georgia.
This is the most celebrated Southern Illinois team since 1967, when the National Invitation Tournament champions were led by the cool of Walt Frazier. The Missouri Valley Conference last produced a Final Four team in 1979, when Indiana State's Larry Bird played Superman and ran into Michigan State and Magic Johnson's brand of kryptonite.