Illinois aims for repeat effort

No. 5 seed is coming off near-perfect victory, but Duke's defense looms

Atlanta Regional

NCAA Tournament

March 26, 2004|By David Teel | David Teel,NEWPORT NEWS DAILY PRESS

ATLANTA - Illinois coach Bruce Weber has a foolproof plan for beating Duke tonight in the Atlanta Regional semifinals.

"It would be nice to duplicate what we did against Cincinnati," he said yesterday.

The fifth-seeded Illini (26-6) were virtually flawless in their 92-68 second-round demolition of the Bearcats on Sunday. Illinois shot a season-best 63.6 percent, made 11 of 19 three-point shots, had 26 assists and committed only four turnovers.

But no team has approached such efficiency against top-seeded Duke (29-5). The Blue Devils' defense is their best in at least a decade, and only three opponents shot 50 percent or better this season.

Tonight's first Atlanta semifinal matches another prolific offense against a formidable defense. No. 7 seed Xavier (25-10) made 13 of 19 three-pointers and shot 54.5 percent in its second-round rout of Mississippi State, but third-seeded Texas (25-7) has not allowed an opponent to shoot better than 50 percent this season.

The winners of tonight's games play here Sunday for a spot in the Final Four.

Illinois won its first outright Big Ten regular-season title since 1952. The Illini split their first six conference games before winning the last 10.

"It seems they finally learned what Bruce wanted," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Weber, who coached Southern Illinois to a regional semifinal in 2002, took over at Illinois last spring after Bill Self departed for Kansas. Weber inherited four returning starters, including guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown, this season's top scorers.

Depending on situations and switches, all-Atlantic Coast Conference guard Chris Duhon will defend against Williams and Brown. But Duhon is still nursing bruised ribs he suffered at the ACC tournament and continues to play with significant pain, Krzyzewski said.

As good as the teams' respective guards are, Weber frets most about the interior, where the Illini must face Shelden Williams and Luol Deng.

"I am convinced that how our `bigs' deal with theirs will probably determine [the outcome]," Weber said.

This is Illinois' third regional semifinal in four years, but it's Duke's seventh in a row. Weber believes the Blue Devils' tradition will motivate his players, saying, "If you want to be the best, then you have to beat the best."

Saint Joseph's was undefeated and ranked as the nation's best until it encountered Xavier in the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament. The Musketeers won, 87-67, part of their current tear of 14 wins in 15 games.

Xavier, absent from the regional semifinals since 1990, was 10-9 entering February and groping without power forward David West, last season's national Player of the Year. A 71-69 victory against city rival Cincinnati on Feb. 3 changed the season's course.

"It took us time to realize we didn't have David," coach Thad Matta said.

But the Musketeers did have senior guards Lionel Chalmers and Romain Sato. Each averages more than 16 points, and Chalmers scored a combined 56 in NCAA victories over Louisville and Mississippi State.

Chalmers is likely to get a healthy dose of Royal Ivey, Texas' best defender and one of four starters back from last season's Final Four team. Ivey is one of 11 Longhorns playing 10 or more minutes a game, a stark contrast to Xavier, which has just nine scholarship players.

"We go 11 deep," Ivey said. "We have shooters, we have slashers, we have defenders, we have guys who can rebound. Everyone knows their role. We have it all."

The Newport News Daily Press is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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