CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- After occupying the top spot in The Associated Press college basketball poll for 15 straight weeks last season, Illinois finds itself looking up.
The Illini were ranked 17th in the preseason poll released Monday. The loss of key starters Deron Williams, Luther Head and Roger Powell Jr. was clearly enough to convince the sportswriters and sportscasters who cast the ballots that the Illini have at least a little bit or rebuilding to do.
"It's where you finish, not where you begin," said Illini junior Rich McBride. "So we're just going to continue to work hard and try to get better as a team."
The Illini spent 15 consecutive weeks ranked No. 1 last season, the longest run by any team in eight seasons. They've been ranked in every AP Top 25 since Feb. 23, 2004.
"It's great for the program, but the preseason poll has a lot to do with how you performed last year," coach Bruce Weber said. "Our guys will need to step up to the challenge of staying among the ranked teams."
Michigan State, with four starters back from last season's Final Four team, is the highest-ranked Big Ten team at No. 4. Iowa is ranked 20th and Indiana is 23rd.
Duke is ranked No. 1, with Texas, UConn and Villanova rounding out the Top Five. One consolation for Illinois: North Carolina, which defeated the Illini in the national championship game last spring, is not ranked.
"I don't even pay attention to it," said Illini senior Dee Brown. "We never get into rankings around here. We just know what kind of program we are and what we strive to be.
"You just worry about yourself. You worry about your program getting better and you, trying to get to that magic level," Brown said.
The Illini are still more than a week from opening the season against South Dakota State on Nov. 18. They'll play their final exhibition game on Wednesday without the services of forward Warren Carter, who had surgery Monday to repair his nose, broken in a weekend practice.
On the Net: http://www.fightingillini.com