CHAMPAIGN – Katie Coleman had a hunch the University of Illinois women's basketball team would receive some good news Sunday night.
Earlier that day at practice, the Illini guard couldn't help but notice that Theresa Grentz was in unusually good spirits.
"I just had a feeling we were going to be playing at home, just by the way she was acting and talking," Coleman said. "She was real happy at practice. So I thought maybe she knew that we were playing at home."
If so, Grentz held her tongue and instead let an announcer on ESPN break the news to her team that night. And that news about the NCAA tournament was just about all the 16th-ranked Illini could have hoped for.
Not only did Illinois receive a No. 4 seed, meaning it was considered by the selection committee to be among the top 16 teams in the country. The Illini also were picked to host 1 of 4 Midwest subregionals this weekend.
"I'm glad that we got the fourth seed and will be playing at home," said Grentz, whose Illini open the tournament Friday night against Drake at Huff Hall. "I'm happy for the community, because they've really gotten behind this team."
Illinois, 22-7, and Drake, 23-6, will play 30 minutes after the conclusion of Friday's 6 p.m. opener at Huff. The first game will match DePaul, 20-8, against No. 25 Duke, 18-10.
The winners will play Sunday at Huff for the right to advance to the Midwest Regional at Iowa City, Iowa, March 22 and 24. The time of Sunday's game has yet to be determined.
Although Grentz is a veteran of nine NCAA tournaments, all while coaching at Rutgers, none of her Illini has ever played in the event. Starting the tournament in the friendly environs of 4,050-seat Huff Hall, says Illini senior guard Ann Henderson, is of immeasurable importance to this team.
"I'm very happy to be hosting," she said. "I think it's the best route for Illinois. We're a very young team and we play great at the Huff."
Illinois is 10-0 at Huff Hall this season.
Because the Illini had gone 3-3 in their last six games, there was speculation that those recent games might have cost them a shot at a No. 4 seed.
"I was concerned about the last three weekends," Grentz admitted. "But you have to look at what we did over the course of the year. We had a very strong stretch there."
After opening the season 2-3, Illinois won 16 of its next 18 and went on to claim a share of the Big Ten regular season championships. The Illini also advanced to the title game of the Big Ten tournament before losing to Iowa.
In Drake, a No. 13 seed, the Illini will be opening against one of the hottest teams in the nation. The Bulldogs are on a school-record 16-game winning streak, including a 78-59 victory over Wichita State on Saturday in the title game of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. The 19-point difference was the largest margin of victory in a championship game in the 12-year history of the tournament.
"She's done a very good job with that team," Grentz said of Drake coach Lisa Bluder. "They're very competitive."
Drake's roster includes former Sullivan High School standout Allyson Glazebrook. The freshman forward has appeared in 20 games, all in reserve, this season. Several Illini players said they had played with or against a few Drake players, including senior forward Nicole McBean of Buffalo Grove and freshman center Tammi Blackstone of Cherokee, Iowa.
For many of the Illini, Sunday's viewing of the NCAA pairings telecast was a first. The team gathered at the Bielfeldt Athletic Administration Building to watch the announcement of the 64-school field that included a UI team for the first time since 1987.
"I don't think any of us have watched it before," Henderson said. "It's never been something of a priority for us because we knew Illinois was never going to show up on the screen."
Said UI junior guard Ashley Berggren: "Usually I'd wait until the next morning to read about it in the paper. Now I have a reason to (watch)."
Illinois is among five Big Ten teams headed to the tournament. Iowa, a ninth seed and the Big Ten's automatic qualifier by virtue of winning the league tournament, will open against North Carolina State on Saturday at Storrs, Conn. Michigan State, a No. 8 seed, draws Portland in a first-round game on Friday at Chapel Hill, N.C.
Purdue, an eighth seed, faces Maryland on Friday at Norfolk, Va. And Northwestern, a No. 12 seed, opens Saturday against George Washington at Washington, D.C.
The four No. 1 seeds are Connecticut in the Midwest Regional, North Carolina in the East, Stanford in the West and Old Dominion in the Mideast.