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Illinois takes aim at No. 1 Wake Forest
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Skip Prosser never has visited Assembly Hall, but the Wake Forest coach knows the reception his No. 1 Demon Deacons are likely to get tonight against the fifth-ranked Illini.
"It's going to be a cauldron of emotion," Prosser said. "My understanding is the fans are rabid. It will be a sea of orange. It will be a tremendous challenge for our guys."
The Demon Deacons (5-0) will be playing on another team's home court for the first time this season. They have won three games at home and two at New York's Madison Square Garden, where they defeated Providence and Arizona to win the preseason NIT.
Illinois' only trip outside Assembly Hall this season has been to a neutral court in Indianapolis, where the Illini (4-0) defeated Gonzaga 89-72 in the Wooden Tradition.
Illinois has made a habit of winning at home. The Illini have beaten 34 straight nonconference opponents in Champaign, and are 66-3 at Assembly Hall since the 2000-2001 season.
"It's a great advantage," Illinois guard Deron Williams said. "I think we've got one of the best home courts in the nation."
Wake Forest is the first No. 1 team to visit Illinois since 1979, when a Michigan State squad led by Magic Johnson lost 57-55 to the Illini.
Illinois has made tonight's game its annual "Paint the Hall Orange" night. The 16,500 seats will be filled with fans wearing orange. The Illini will wear orange uniforms. Even coach Bruce Weber has a new orange blazer.
"I don't need to turn the lights on in the closet it shines so bright," he said.
The matchup of Top Five teams has been circled on calendars since last spring as the marquee game in this season's ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
"For a nonconference game, this is probably as big as it gets," Weber said. "They're very good. There's no doubt about it."
The game will feature two of the nation's top backcourt tandems.
Wake Forest's Chris Paul and Justin Gray score a combined 30 points per game. So do Illinois' Williams and Dee Brown.
"It's a key to the game," Weber said. "If we can control their guards, or if they can control our guards, you're taking away the strengths of your team."
The four players have played together at summer camps.
"This is probably one of the best group of guards we're going to face," Williams said.
Wake Forest is bigger across the front line with Eric Williams, Jamaal Levy and Vytas Danelius all standing 6-9. Illinois center James Augustine is 6-10, but power forward Roger Powell is only 6-6 and Luther Head is really a third guard at 6-3.
Head leads the Illini in scoring at 17.5, and he's hit 59 percent of his shots from 3-point range. He also leads the team in steals (11) and assists (29).
Illinois won its first four games convincingly, but the Illini know Wake Forest will present a much tougher challenge.
"This is a dream matchup, something that will be talked about for a long time to come," Weber said. "It's a big test ... to see where we stand. But we still have, I hope, 30 more games left so it isn't going to be the end of the season either way."