Coach K. Great players. Great tradition.
Those were the words that came to mind when Illinois players were asked about the Duke Blue Devils.
Thanks to a 92-68 win Sunday against Cincinnati at Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, the Illini advanced to their third Sweet 16 in four years. They will head to Atlanta for a Friday night meeting with one of the nation's most storied programs.
"What isn't there to say about Duke?" Nick Smith said. "There is a mystique. Basically, they've been the best team in the country the past 10 or 15 years. They have one of the great coaches in the game and probably the most talented team in the country."
Illinois isn't looking so bad today, either.
Fresh off one of their most dominating NCAA tournament performances, the Illini are headed to Atlanta with plenty of momentum and support.
When players arrived at Ubben Basketball Complex at 11:30 p.m. Sunday, they were greeted by about 50 fans waiting in 25-degree weather.
"We'll go anywhere to support them," said Champaign's Barb Barker, who drove four friends to meet the team. "What they've done is really exciting."
After the UI won its first outright Big Ten title in 52 years with a March 7 victory against Ohio State, more than 1,500 fans celebrated their return at Willard Airport in Savoy.
After Sunday's second-round NCAA tournament win, the Illini watched the first half of the second game at Nationwide Arena – Alabama-Birmingham upset top-seeded Kentucky – before dining at a local pizzeria. Because of the team's late arrival in Savoy, Flightstar officials ruled out another airport get-together.
That didn't stop 10-year-old Colby Purcell of Philo and his 11-year-old sister, Alyssa, from staying up late to thank their favorite basketball players.
"If it wasn't spring break, we wouldn't be out this late," said their grandmother, Jean Sexton. "I'm only here because they wanted to be here. They didn't want to miss it."
Illinois, the only Big Ten team remaining in the tournament, has not beaten a No. 1 seed. The Illini get that chance Friday.
To a man, the Illini mentioned coach Mike Krzyzewski. They know plenty about players like Chris Duhon, J.J. Redick and Luol Deng. The Blue Devils are the top seed in the Atlanta Regional, are seeded third overall in the tournament and finished the regular season ranked sixth nationally.
"They're always top five in the country every year," Dee Brown said. "It's always a great feeling when you see guys on TV all the time and now you get to play them. It's such a huge thing."
Smith and Jerrance Howard are the only Illini who were playing the last time Illinois faced Duke: a 78-77 loss in the Big Ten/ACC challenge during the 2000-01 season.
Howard is 0-2 in a pair of thrillers against the Blue Devils.
"A lot of people are intimidated by Duke before they get on the court," Howard said. "We're not going to be that way. I've seen them a lot. They're on TV more than anybody."
Roger Powell said he's not sure how many times he's watched Duke on TV through the years. And freshman Brian Randle said, "A lot of kids grow up watching them, wanting to go there."
Why not? The Blue Devils have been to 13 Final Fours, won three national titles and have 79 tournament victories. Krzyzewki trails only North Carolina legend Dean Smith in tournament wins and is third behind UCLA's John Wooden and Smith in Final Four appearances.
"Coach K is going to have them ready," Luther Head said. "With him on the bench, you always know they're going to have a great team."
Howard said any time a team plays Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina, it can elevate a program.
"We feel we have just as good a program as those guys," Howard said. "Their tradition might be a little better, but we have a good coach just like them and good players just like them."
Smith knows the task will be difficult. But the Illini made history by beating a higher seed Sunday, and Smith believes there's more in store.
"If we can beat them, we can beat anybody, as talented and as good as they are," Smith said. "If we beat them, we'll be playing so well it would be hard to keep us from the Final Four."