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Illini at top of heap

Mission clear-cut: Look out for No. 1

INDIANAPOLIS -- Illinois spent most of this season staking its claim as the nation's best team.

After winning 32 of 33 games, rolling to Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles and protecting its No. 1 ranking for 15 consecutive weeks, Illinois can finally focus on its real mission -- winning a national title.

"This is what we've worked for since last year . . . to have this opportunity," coach Bruce Weber said. "We've accomplished a lot of things along the way. But at the same time, you're still hungry for more."

Top-seeded Illinois (32-1) knows the dangers of early NCAA Tournament games. Two years ago at the same Indianapolis dome where they open against 16th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson today, the Illini escaped with a 65-60 first-round victory over Western Kentucky, then lost to Notre Dame in the second round.

There's more at stake this time.

No top seed has ever lost to a 16th seed, and whether it's fair or not Illinois fans expect nothing less than a Final Four run.

"Every team expects to get to the Final Four and I mean that," Kentucky coach Tubby Smith said yesterday. "Illinois has had a great season, and I don't think anything that happens now you can be disappointed with because they've had a great run."

Try telling that to the Illini.

They responded to their only loss by dicing up Northwestern, Minnesota and Wisconsin to win the Big Ten tournament. The title was bittersweet for Weber, whose mother, Dawn, died after last Friday's victory over the Wildcats.

The funeral was Tuesday, and if the Illinois players respond like they did last weekend, the Illini could find themselves headed back to Chicago for the regionals.

"You get great support from the players," said Gene Keady, Weber's boss at Purdue for 18 seasons. "If they're character guys, they're going to win the game for you because they're so focused."

The other matchups in Indianapolis are just as intriguing.

Some believe Smith's Wildcats (25-5) deserved the last No. 1 seed. Instead, Kentucky drew the second seed in the Austin Region and a first-round matchup against Eastern Kentucky (22-8), a school located about 30 miles south of Lexington and coached by ex-Wildcat Travis Ford.

Cincinnati (24-7), the seventh seed in Austin, will try to reach the round of 16 for the first time since 2001 against Iowa (21-11) and coach Steve Alford, one of Indiana's favorite sons. Alford led the Hoosiers to the 1987 national championship, a run that started with two wins in Indianapolis.

"You just start thinking about all the little, different things," Alford said. "Obviously, they were very special then, and those are memories that haven't faded any now. I can still remember an awful lot of plays."

The other contest pits last year's tournament darling, Nevada (24-6), the No. 9 seed in Chicago, against a Texas team that finished 20-10 after starting 12-2.

Most of the attention Thursday, though, will be focused on the Illini, whose only loss came in the regular-season finale when Ohio State hit a 3-pointer with 5.1 seconds left.

For Fairleigh Dickinson (20-12), it's a chance to make a name for itself. The Knights' last appearance in the NCAA tournament was 1998 and they know the odds are against them. Illinois enters as a 26 1/2-point favorite.

"We're going to find any advantage we have and try to exploit it," Knights' forward Gordon Klaibor said.

Illinois's mission is more defined.

It needs six more wins to complete the best season in school history 100-year history with a national championship.

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