INDIANAPOLIS (Ticker) -- Fourth-seeded Illinois can move into the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the sixth straight year on Thursday night when it meets No. 13 seed Western Kentucky in the West Region at the RCA Dome.
Illinois (24-6) has not lost a first-round game since a 1995 defeat to Tulsa and coach Bill Self is 9-4 in his last four NCAA Tournament appearances.
Big Ten Player of the Year Brian Cook is the lone senior in the starting lineup for the Fighting Illini, who captured the Big Ten Conference tournament title. He averaged 20.1 points and 7.2 rebounds this season.
Cook scored 15 points and was named the Most Outstanding Player in the Big Ten tournament after Sunday's 72-59 victory over Ohio State. Roger Powell led Illinois with 16 points and freshman James Augustine and Sean Harrington added 12 apiece.
The youthful Illini have three freshmen and a sophomore in Powell in their starting lineup with Cook. Freshman Dee Brown turned in an outstanding season as the team's point guard and averaged 11.8 points while leading the squads with 4.9 assists per game.
This is the second straight year Illinois has been rewarded under the NCAA's "pod" system of bracketing. Last year, it played its first two games in Chicago.
Western Kentucky (24-8) has won 12 straight games and earned its third straight Sun Belt Conference championship. Mike Wells collected 18 points and 10 rebounds and Patrick Sparks added 12 points and seven assists in the title game against Middle Tennessee State.
The Hilltoppers' success has been a testament to coach Dennis Felton, who lost All-American center Chris Marcus and starting power forward Todor Pandov to injuries early in the season. But the play of Sparks has been key - the sophomore guard scored a career-high 28 points in a semifinal win over New Mexico State.
Western Kentucky is seeking its first NCAA Tournament victory since a first-round triumph over Michigan in 1995. Felton's two entries lost by an average of 14.5 points to Florida and Stanford.
This is just the second meeting between the schools. Illinois posted a 93-80 home victory on December 12, 1959.
The winner will play Notre Dame or Wisconsin-Milwaukee in Saturday's second round.