Illinois-Western Kentucky Notes

Illinois-Western Kentucky Notes

Check out all of our NCAA tournament coverage here.

* * *

Jeff Jordan knows the absence of Chester Frazier means someone will have to become a lock-down defender for Illinois next season. The sophomore believes he can assume that role.

"Hopefully we can get some other guys to step up on defense because I feel like that's the cornerstone and what everything is about in this program," said Jordan, who played 12 minutes in the Illini's 76-72 loss to Western Kentucky on Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA tournament. "I'm going to do my best on defense and I think a lot of guys are going to improve."

* * *

Alex Legion played only six minutes Thursday, but the Illini expect him to expand his role with designated shooter Trent Meacham exiting the program.

He acknowledged that defense was the key to Illinois' near-comeback.

"That's what we hang our hats on," Legion said.

Legion was as down as anyone about the loss. But he said the season was a success.

"I feel we worked hard this year and we set high expectations for ourselves; everybody else had us kind of under the radar," Legion said. "It was tough to lose like this, but we feel like we put the work in during the offseason and it paid off for us."

* * *

It might feel like Meacham has been around forever. His time on the court, at Centennial and then to the Assembly Hall via Dayton, date back to 2000. So it's no surprise the senior took the loss harder than most.

"Losses are always hard, especially in the NCAA tournament, especially when it's the last game of your career," Meacham said. "They're all tough to swallow, especially on this stage."

Meacham had 24 points, a season high, and he looked to be the go-to guy in crucial situations. He attempted 15 shots, tying a career high, and made nine, a season high.

"We were chasing the ball around, they hit threes, had baskets inside and we didn't have an answer," he said.

* * *

Bruce Weber's NCAA tournament record fell to 10-7 in a game the Illini led for 1 minute, 24 seconds. The coach acknowledged the three seniors.

"Calvin (Brock) came through, a good story ending like I talked about. Trent played like he never dreamed of playing. So you're proud of that," Weber said. "The other guys have to learn. We learned something after last year. Now we have to learn something after this year."

Thursday marked the seventh time in 28 NCAA tournaments Illinois was knocked out in the first round. It was also the second straight trip that Illinois got an early ticket home. The Illini lost to Virginia Tech in the first round two years ago.

* * *

Regardless of Thursday's results, Gonzaga and Illinois were assured of playing each other.

Next season, the season after that, the season after that and the season after that.

Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth confirmed Thursday the programs will enter a four-game series that begins in December. Roth said the contract is signed and delivered.

"We're excited about it. I think the guys at Illinois are," Roth said at the Rose Garden. "I think it's an opportunity for both programs to raise the profile of our non-league schedule."

The 2009 game will represent the Illini's annual December trip to the United Center in Chicago. From there, the Illini and Zags will play in Seattle (2010), Champaign (2011) and Spokane (2012). The final game of the series will be played on the Gonzaga campus at the 4-year-old McCarthey Athletic Center, not at the nearby Spokane Arena.

"Scheduling is difficult anywhere. I think it's become very, very difficult to do at every school, not just Gonzaga. It's difficult at Illinois, I'm sure," Roth said. "You have to put yourself in a position to be where we are every season, for 11 straight seasons, in the NCAA tournament. We have to go out and play good, quality opponents in the non-league time."

Illinois' 2009-10 nonconference schedule also is expected to include games against Georgia (neutral), Vanderbilt (home), the ACC/Big Ten Challenge (road) and Missouri.

Illinois also will compete in a Thanksgiving-time tournament at Las Vegas at the Orleans Arena, which hosted the WCC tournament won by Gonzaga two weeks ago.

"I think their fans will really enjoy it. I know our fans really enjoyed it," Roth said of the 7,800-seat Orleans Arena, which is situated just off the Las Vegas Strip. "It's not a part of the casino, so there's not slot machines going off next to you. But it's close enough where you can enjoy the experience if you want to."

* * *

On his left biceps, Purdue freshman Lewis Jackson has a tattoo shaped like the state of Illinois, with the numbers "217" scribed in the center.

"That's where I'm from," Jackson said proudly after the Decatur Eisenhower product helped fifth-seeded Purdue to a 61-56 win against Northern Iowa. "I've got to represent where I'm from."

And on his right leg, he wears a black sock that stretches up past his knee.

"I hurt my knee, so I just started wearing it. I kind of started playing a little bit better with it, so I just kept it. Superstition, I guess," he added.

There wasn't anything lucky or superstitious about how the Boilers reached the second round for the second straight season. Purdue struggled to score – again – but limited Northern Iowa to 37 percent shooting.

As he sat in a chair in the Purdue locker room, his NCAA tournament debut in the past, the reigning News-Gazette State Player of the Year expected a few phone calls.

"They take our phones before games so I haven't got it back yet," said Jackson, who admitted some nerves as he scored five points in 24 minutes. "But I'm pretty sure once I get it back it will probably be off the hook."

* * *

Rooting interests at NCAA tournament sites change quicker than Digger Phelps' opinions.

Take, for example, the Purdue-Northern Iowa game. A capacity crowd turned into Northern Iowa supporters. Purple-wearing Washington fans dominated the early session at the Rose Garden, and the Huskies wanted to face the Missouri Valley champs rather than the Big Ten tournament champs in the second round.

Sorry, U-Dub. You get the Boilers.

"They're kind of like Washington State was last year," UW freshman Elston Turner said of Purdue. "We're going to have to play perfect to beat them."

* * *

Illinois recruited Gonzaga senior Jeremy Pargo, a Chicago Roberson product, but the recruitment "did not go very deep," he said. Academic concerns scared away the Illini, he said.

The proud Chicagoan said Purdue's Matt Painter was the only Big Ten coach to really pursue him. And then?

"I guess he got a hold of my transcript," Pargo said with a laugh.

He added he's on track to graduate in May.

"Which is unbelievable," he said. "Unbelievable."

* * *

UI recruit Joseph Bertrand was hoping to catch the Illinois game Thursday. But he had other business to take care of first.

The Sterling senior, who said he'll be on the UI campus the second week of June, reached the finals in the Class 3A dunk contest. He is the defending champion.

"I didn't really practice. It's all in my mind right now," Bertrand said earlier Thursday. "I don't know what I'm going to do yet."

A 6-5 guard, Bertrand was named second-team all-state by The Associated Press. His coach at Sterling, Peter Goff, said Bertrand should have been a first-team selection.

"He just did so much for us," Goff said. "A lot of what he did doesn't show up in the box score."

"I think working harder in practice," Bertrand said of where he's improved. "Our games didn't come out like we wanted to. But I've been working hard."

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MarkHoekstra wrote on March 20, 2009 at 9:03 am

Weber got out-coached by a rookie head coach at a midmajor school.

rocko wrote on March 21, 2009 at 9:03 am

Really? Did Weber coach Frazier to break his hand?

LoyalIllini wrote on March 21, 2009 at 10:03 am

National and local sports media and fans across the internet are in agreement that the broken hand was just the slightest of problems for this team and it was a blip at the end.

rocko wrote on March 21, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Well there you have it. The internet experts think the broken hand of our team's best defensive player and our heart and soul was the slightest of our problems. Brilliant.

IlliniNationsCapital wrote on March 27, 2009 at 3:03 pm

Please don't make the easy and incorrect claim that Weber got out-coached. Very rarely does Bruce get out-coached, especially this season when this roster didn't deserve to win anything close to 24 games. Weber deserves his lumps, and he receives them, when it comes to recruiting. This year's team had limited ability and we were simply outclassed physically by some teams. But Bruce (and Jerrance) has recruiting going strong now, so the future is very bright now.