Phil Pash's Simply Sports: Top-ranked Illini start Phase Four

Top-ranked Illinois heads into Phase Four of Bruce Weber’s master plan in pretty good shape.

The Fighting Illini (32-1, school record for wins) got the overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA “Big Dance” starting this week, and they won’t have to play any games far from home, which means they should have great fan support.

They are assigned to the Chicago regional. But first they play in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis (I-74 east from Champaign), starting March 17 against Northeast Conference champ Fairleigh Dickinson. If they win there, they go to Allstate Arena in Rosemont (up I-57 from Champaign). If they win there, they go to the Final Four April 2 and 4 in St. Louis (a couple of different interstates will get you there from Champaign).

Truth be told, Illinois didn’t look real sharp while winning the Big Ten’s automatic NCAA bid in the conference tourney March 10-13 in Chicago’s United Center. But they had to play through a tragedy—Weber’s 81-year-old mother, Dawn, died March 11 after emergency surgery to repair a torn aorta.

She was taken to Rush University Medical Center after complaining of chest pains before the Illinois-Northwestern game. The hospital said she died about 6 p.m. Team officials said Weber was at the hospital when his mother died. Her services were to be March 15.

“She was here at the (United Center) with a cousin to pick up her tickets before the game when she felt chest pains,” said Kent Brown, in charge of Illinois athletic public relations.

Megan Weber, the coach’s wife, told her husband of his mother’s illness after the Illini defeated Northwestern 68-51 in the quarterfinals.

One of Weber’s brothers, David, coaches Northbrook Glenbrook North, and he coached that team into the Class AA Sweet Sixteen the night his mother died. His team beat Hoffman Estates Conant 37-36.

In addition to Northwestern, Illinois also beat Minnesota 64-56 and then Wisconsin (for the third time this season) 54-43 for the tourney title to go with the Big Ten regular-season crown.

It was the third straight year the Illini played for the tourney crown, and Illinois improved to 27-6 at the United Center, where it has won 14 straight games. Illini James Augustine was voted tournament MVP.

Early in the campaign, Weber said he was breaking the season into four parts—the non-conference portion of the schedule, the Big Ten season, the Big Ten tourney and the NCAA tourney. Part Four starts Thursday.

Before the 65-64 loss to Ohio State March 6, the Illini were trying to become the first team to go through an entire season undefeated since Indiana in 1975-76, and their 29-0 start was the best since UNLV in 1991. The Runnin’ Rebels went 34-0 before losing to Duke in the NCAA semifinals.

Illinois’ first loss wasn’t enough to knock the Illini out of the top spot in the Associated Press college basketball poll. Illinois was on top for the 14th straight week, but for the first time in five weeks, the Illini were not a unanimous selection, receiving 48 first-place votes and 1,725 points from the national media panel.

Joining the Illini as No. 1 NCAA seeds North Carolina and Duke from the Atlantic Coast Conference and Washington of the Pac-10. North Carolina (27-4) will be at Syracuse, Duke (25-5) will be in Austin and Washington (27-5) in Albuquerque.

Seeded behind Illinois in the Chicago regional were No. 2 Oklahoma State, which won the Big 12 tournament; No. 3 Arizona, the regular season Pac-10 champion: and fourth-seeded Boston College, co-champions of the Big East.

The Big East and Big 12 each has six teams in the field, one short of the record, while the ACC, SEC and Big Ten have five. The other multiple bids leagues were Conference USA and the Pac-10 with four, the Missouri Valley with three and the Big West, Mountain West, West Coast and Western Athletic Conference with two.

The other Big Ten teams were Michigan State, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. Southern Illinois, where Weber coached before moving to Illinois, also got in. So did UW-Milwaukee.

Illinois guard Dee Brown was named Big Ten Player of the Year March 8 by the league’s coaches and media, and the media selected Weber as the conference’s Coach of the Year.

Brown also was named defensive player of the year by the coaches and joins fellow guards Luther Head and Deron Williams as first-team All-Big Ten selections. Minnesota’s Vincent Grier and Mike Wilkinson of Wisconsin are the other players on the coaches’ first-team, while the media chose Indiana’s Bracey Wright over Grier.

Indiana’s D.J. White was chosen freshman of the year by both coaches and media.

Weber is the first Illinois coach to be named coach of the year since Lou Henson won it in 1993. Weber led the Illini to outright Big Ten titles in each of his first two seasons at the school.

Brown is the third Illinois player in the past five seasons to win the league’s top postseason honor. Brian Cook won the honor in 2003, and Frank Williams won it in 2001.

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