Illini men face USC in Charlotte

Illini men face USC in Charlotte

CHAMPAIGN – Just in case pops forgot, Kevin Kruger was there to remind him of the last family vacation in Charlotte, N.C.

"Kevin leaned over to me and said, 'Dad, you know your record's not very good there,' " Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.

If Illinois' first-year basketball coach wasn't in such a jolly mood Sunday, junior might be grounded.

"This is all upbeat and positive," Kruger said.

Kruger is heading back to the Charlotte Coliseum, site of the 1994 Final Four, his most memorable basketball moment. Not so much the game – a 70-65 Florida loss to Duke – but the getting there.

"I told him Kevin we have a chance to even that up now," Kruger said.

Probably better than 50-50. Kruger's seventh NCAA tournament team is seeded sixth, itching to make up for past postseason disappointments and set to meet the unheralded, 11th-seeded Southern Cal Trojans Friday (time TBA) in a first-round NCAA tournament Southeast regional game.

USC, 17-10 and Pac-10 Conference runner-up, was among the last teams on the tournament selection committee's invite list, joining Oklahoma and Massachusetts.

"Second place in the best conference in the country? How could they deny us?" Southern Cal guard Danny Walker said.

That's what they were asking on seven other campuses. Among the teams that felt they got jobbed: 19-11 Michigan, 19-12 Syracuse, 19-9 West Virginia, 20-10 Tulane, 20-7 Hawaii, 20-11 Fresno State and 21-12 Texas Christian, all bound for the National Invitation Tournament.

Big Ten champ Minnesota, left out last year, was seeded No. 1 in the Midwest. Top-ranked Kansas (Southeast), Kentucky (West) and North Carolina (East) were awarded other top spots.

"Last year at this time my heart was pounding real fast," Minnesota forward Courtney James said. "But that was last year, and this is this year.We kind of figured we were going to be a No. 1 seed, but it still feels good."

Illinois and Minnesota were joined by four of their conference buddies in the field of 64: Indiana, Iowa, Purdue and Wisconsin, giving the Big Ten (3-11 the last two tournaments) as many representatives as any league.

The Atlantic Coast Conference also had six. The Atlantic 10, Big 12 and Pac-10 had five, the Big East four.

Wisconsin, which bounced Minnesota 66-65 Saturday, drew a No. 7 seed despite needing the win over the Gophers to reach the tournament.

Two wins over Illinois didn't hurt the Badgers' cause.

"A lot of times it's teams playing well at this time of the year and their record against other teams that were considered," said Terry Holland, the head of the NCAA tournament selection committee. "(Wisconsin) is a team that performed well against the upper echelon in the Big Ten."

Indiana, Iowa and Purdue all checked in at No. 8, which Hawkeyes coach Tom Davis didn't quite get.

Iowa, which finished in a second-place tie with Purdue, draws Virginia in Round 1.

"From a coaching point of view, I can't ever remember getting a draw and liking it," Davis said. "... I think it's pretty clear that your conference records are meaning less and less. The Big Ten regular season is not as meaningful as it once was."

No doubt, Davis would have settled for Illinois' seed, the second-highest of the Big Ten bunch, which Kruger thought was about right.

Illinois finished 7-3 down the stretch – same as USC – and had five wins over tournament teams (Coppin State, UCLA, Minnesota, Indiana, Iowa).

"I wasn't surprised when you look at the overall rankings throughout the latter part of the season, whether it's the ratings or the RPI," Kruger said. "That takes in consideration the nonconference wins.

"We had some good nonconference wins, so that was kind of expected going in. I thought the range was five or six, six probably more likely. Six is an appealing place to be."

Sixteen would have done for some Illini, just relieved to make it after taking last year off.

"Last year at this time, I was probably sleeping," Illinois center Chris Gandy said.

There was no wild celebration at USC, not even a team get-together. Walker said he was prepared to party all by himself and hadn't seen any teammates all day.

"Coach gave us the day off," Walker said. "Everyone went home."

The Trojans' coach is former National Basketball Association veteran Henry Bibby, who wasn't even around to celebrate the school's first NCAA invitation in five years.

Bibby spent Sunday scouting at a junior college tournament in Texas.

"I'm sure he's happy," Walker said. "Everyone had us on the bubble, saying we weren't going to make it."

As of 6 p.m. Sunday, Kruger didn't know a whole lot about the Trojans. He knew about their star senior, Rodrick Rhodes, who he bumped into when he was at Florida and Rhodes was at Kentucky. He brought up the name Stais Boseman, a Trojan guard. He mentioned Bibby.

"I've not really sat down and watched them play," said Kruger, who had plans to do that tonight.

In the meantime, he might want to consult his reserve point guards for scouting reports.

Halim Abdullah was a high school teammate of national player of the year Rhodes at St. Anthony's in Jersey City, N.J. Abdullah says Rhodes used to come over to the house all the time.

"We're the best of friends, he's like one of my big brothers," Abdullah said. "He's strong, he can play the '2' or the '3' and could give us some matchup problems."

Jelani Boline has played against Boseman and the few (two) other Trojans who were around before this year. Boline came to the UI from Oregon State, where during a 1995 game he beat the Trojans with a 10-footer at the buzzer.

"They're a finesse, up-and-down team," Boline said. "They don't play as physical as they do in the Big Ten."

Illinois, which if it wins will get the winner of No. 3 Georgia vs. No. 14 Tennessee-Chattanooga on Sunday, has done the Pac-10 thing before. On Dec. 3, the Illini lost at Cal 89-88. On Dec. 21, they trashed UCLA 79-63.

"We played those two, so we've got a good taste of what it's going to be like against a Pac-10 team," Illinois forward Bryant Notree said.

For what it's worth, USC went 1-3 against Cal and UCLA. The Trojans split with Arizona and Stanford, dropped nonconference games against North Carolina, Cincinnati and UNLV and beat North Carolina-Charlotte in Charlotte.

The 6-foot-4 Boseman, who attended the same L.A. high school as Lisa Leslie and Elden Campbell, leads the Trojans in scoring (16.2 points per game). But the 6-6 Rhodes is the one who punched their tournament ticket, scoring 28 points in a win at Washington State and 32 in a win at Washington to close out the season.

In USC's five previous games, Pac-10 Newcomer of the Year Rhodes had scored a total of 31 points.

"That's what we were looking for the whole year," Bibby said after the Washington State win.