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Daniels | Illini run has far-reaching effects

Mar. 23—CHAMPAIGN — Take out all the emotion.

All the reaction a Terrence Shannon Jr. one-handed fast-break dunk can entail.

All the fancy footwoork and deft passes Marcus Domask brings to the court.

All the motivation and words not suitable for a family newspaper Brad Underwood can unleash during a timeout early in the second half.

Just look strictly at the data like University of Illinois professor of computer science and founder of BracketOdds Sheldon Jacobson does on a daily basis.

Which is why third-seeded Illinois had an 85 percent chance to beat 14th-seeded Morehead State before it went out and did so 85-69 on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the NCAA tournament at the CHI Health Center in Omaha, Neb. Because in the first round, No. 3 seeds had a 130-22 record against No. 14 seeds.

Which is why Illinois (27-8) has a 63 percent chance to beat 11th-seeded Duquesne (25-11) before the ball is thrown into the air on Saturday night for the scheduled 7:40 p.m. tip in Omaha. Because in the second round, No. 3 seeds own a 32-20 record against No. 11 seeds.

And why if Illinois meets up with second-seeded Iowa State next Thursday night in Boston, the Illini only have a 37 percent chance to win in their first Sweet 16 appearance since 2005. Because No. 3 seeds are only 18-30 against No. 2 seeds.

Of course, these NCAA tournament games are played by humans, not robots. Jacobson acknowledges the point.

But even if the Illini keep on winning and meet reigning national champion and No. 1 overall seed Connecticut next Saturday in a regional final in Boston, don't rule out a trip to Phoenix the first week in April for the Final Four.

"Single-elimination tournament are unforgiving," Jacobson said. "Making the Elite Eight is when seeds can be ignored, and No. 1 seeds are most vulnerable."

Dealing with the pressure and expectation of a No. 1 seed is one Matt McCumber knows a bit about. The Tuscola native and head manager of the 2004-05 Illini got a first-hand look at how Dee Brown, Deron Williams and others navigated the crucible of March en route to the program's only appearance in the national championship game. And the last time Illinois played beyond the first weekend of the NCAA tournament.

"The biggest obstacle for making it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament to me at that time was playing with that target on our backs as the indisputable best team in the country that season," McCumber said Friday of the Illini team that won its first 29 games and carried a 32-1 record into the NCAA tournament that year. "There is also a pressure associated with the moment as being the hunted and not the hunter. The regular season really prepared us well for the NCAA tournament, but March is chaos."

Meaning teams are one bad half or one bad stretch of play or one lightly-recruited player going off — like Jack Gohlke and his 10 three-pointers on Thursday night proved in Oakland's upset of Kentucky — to ruin everything a program has worked for the past several months.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood can hardly go a day when he speaks into a microphone this season about the abrupt nature of a season ending and how he doesn't want the significance of that lost on his current, veteran-led team.

McCumber understands why the seventh-year Illini coach has made that a key talking point.

"The finality of it all is real and every aspect is heightened," McCumber said. "I thought our focus, our preparation, our competitiveness, our confidence never wavered all season during the 2004-05 run, and that truly set us apart."

That transcendent group of Illini almost two decades ago made countless Illini fans sit up and pay attention.

St. Joseph-Ogden sixth-year boys' basketball coach Kiel Duval among them.

It's why Duval, who led his Spartans to a 27-7 record this season, an outright Illini Prairie Conference title and a berth in the Sweet 16 in Class 2A, admits he still gets too emotionally invested in the Illini.

But it's also why he'd love nothing more to see Illinois break through the wall of eight straight NCAA tournament appearances without at least a Sweet 16 berth. And why he picks up items he can use in his own coaching from watching these Illini.

"The biggest thing that almost everyone has recognized is the next-man-up mentality that this Illini team has," Duval said. "They have had moments throughout the year where guys have been missing, but other starters and bench guys have stepped up big in those moments."

Case in point recently: Dain Dainja. The backup big man had 21 points on 9-of-9 shooting during the Illini's win against Morehead State on Thursday, with 17 of those points in the second half to turn a close game into a lopsided one.

It's why Duval, even though he was watching Thursday's game from a fan perspective, put on his coaching hat for a minute in wanting Illinois to keep feeding Dainja the ball down low.

"They had to get Dainja a look almost every time down, and the guys on the floor bought into that," Duval said. "The players on the bench were his biggest fans. That is what it is all about. Whatever it takes to win. For any coach, this should be their message to their team."

It's a message the Illini players have repeated this season. A message that is resonating with its fan base near and far.

"Illinois basketball getting back to being one of the top programs in the country is an enormous lift for high school basketball in Illinois," Duval said. "They are now starting to get some of the top players in the state again. It used to be a huge deal for players from Illinois to represent their state and go to the U of I. We lost that for a while. Underwood and his staff have done a tremendous job of bringing that back. It's hard not to be excited about Illinois basketball and its future."

Especially when the odds are in their favor.

Matt Daniels is the Sports Editor at The News-Gazette. He can be reached at 217-373-7422 or at mdaniels@news-gazette.com.