Salukis in unfamiliar territory vs. Connecticut

Friday, March 22, 2002

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- The white banner in front of the scorer's table at every NCAA tournament site lists each team in bright red letters.

At the regional semifinals at the Carrier Dome, one name jumps out -- way out -- Southern Illinois.

"People are saying, 'What are they doing there?'" Salukis center Rolan Roberts said.

Coach Bruce Weber was asked about his team being among the final 16 with a shot at winning the national championship.

"I'm sure it's a surprise to a lot of people, except us," he said.

The 11th-seeded Salukis (28-7) play second-seeded Connecticut (26-6) today.

The winners meet Sunday and one of them will move on to the Final Four, a place Southern Illinois has never been. The other three have all been there within the last five seasons.

"It's been a hectic and exciting week with a lot of national attention," Weber said. "It's time to settle down, and if we're not we really could be in for a long night."

The Salukis, who tied for the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference, beat Texas Tech in the opening round and rallied from a 19-point deficit to beat Georgia to advance to the round of 16 for the first time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.

"We played as hard as we had all season last weekend," said Weber, a longtime assistant to Gene Keady at Purdue. "But this isn't something that just happened."

The Salukis took Illinois down to the wire and beat Indiana 72-60 in going 1-1 with the Big Ten this season.

KENTUCKY VS. MARYLAND: Confidence has been the difference in Kentucky during this tournament.

The fourth-seeded Wildcats can get another big dose of confidence with a win today.

The Wildcats, who won the national championship in 1998 and reached the regional finals the next year, had an up-and-down season because of suspensions, injuries and players leaving the program.

A loss to South Carolina in the Southeastern Conference tournament quarterfinals left the impression the Wildcats wouldn't be a factor in the NCAAs.

"We had a meeting after that loss in the SEC tournament and everything since has been positive with everyone in the right direction," said senior forward Tayshaun Prince, who had 41 points in the second-round win over Tulsa. "It's been a different mind-set."

KANSAS VS. ILLINOIS:Late in Kansas' practice session, someone in the stands cupped his hands and shouted at Kirk Hinrich:

"Hey, watch out for Frank Williams!"

Hinrich doesn't need the reminder. Ever since Kansas and Illinois found themselves in an NCAA Midwest regional semifinal rematch, the Jayhawks' junior guard has been reminded daily about Williams.

Illinois' senior point guard scored 30 points in the Illini's 80-64 win a year ago -- a career high and the most points scored by any opposing player against the Jayhawks last season.

"I just remember getting physically dominated last year," said Hinrich, "but I think it's something our team has improved on this year."

Williams, who leads the Illini in scoring at 16.8 points per game, agreed that Hinrich has gotten better.

"He's always out there trying to get into guys and go for the steal," Williams said.

-- From wire reports

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