INDIANAPOLIS - Once in a lifetime opportunity.
That's how Nevada senior co-captain Kevinn Pinkney described the Pack's chance to play top-ranked Illinois today (2:40 p.m.) in the second round of the NCAA Tournament at the RCA Dome.
The Illini, 33-1, have been criticized in the local media since they lost their only game of the season to Ohio State back on March 6. Nevada, 25-6, needs to elevate its game after sub-par efforts against Boise State and Texas.
"It's going to have to be a collective effort," Pinkney said. "They have great shooters. Their guards are unbelievable on the perimeter. We have to play great defense.
"We need to do this for the team and ourselves. Any team can be beaten on any given night. We are bringing our A game."
Nevada has to hope it's A game is enough. This will be the best team Nevada has seen probably in the last couple of years, including Georgia Tech, Gonzaga and UConn last year. It's hard to find a chink in the Illini armor.
"We've never played a team this good," Nevada coach Mark Fox said. "You guys (the media) say they aren't playing well ... they're just getting W's, W's and W's, and that's the bottom line. Winning is all that matters.
"They don't classify ugly W's or pretty wins. Give Illinois credit, they have more than anybody else. So I don't know if I would say they're not playing well. I think they are terrific."
It's a guard-oriented team led by Dee Brown (13.5), Luther Head (15.7) and Deron Williams (12.0), and the trio have caught the attention of Fox and his perimeter players.
"They are great guards," Mo Charlo said. "All three are the same. They are all basically point guards. They can shoot the three and put it on the floor and break you down. We have to defend them hard all night."
Kyle Shiloh, whose excellent effort on Texas' Daniel Gibson, sparked Nevada to a 61-57 win over Texas on Thursday, said only ex-UConn star Ben Gordon is better than any of the Illini trio.
"Gordon is probably the best I've ever seen since I've been her," Shiloh said. "These three guys are next. I'll probably see a lot of Brown and Head.''
Illinois coach Bruce Weber praised Nevada's perimeter defense.
"It's solid," he said. "They (Shiloh, Sessions and Charlo) all have good, quick feet and are always giving help. They are a solid defensive group."
In this game, more than any other Nevada has played the entire season, tempo will be paramount. Nevada can't get into an up-and-down game and expect to win. If the score stays in the low 50s, Nevada could pull off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history. If not, it could be a debacle like the Kansas game.
Weber admits that his team has lacked patience on offense in recent games and has been dribbling too much. The Illini have shot 35.7 and 35.8 in its last two wins. The only thing that has enabled the Illini to escape defeat is their defense. Illinois held Minnesota to 36.8 percent and Wisconsin to 25.9 percent from the floor.
"Early in possessions we get the movement we like." Weber said. "There is more dribbling now than earlier in the season. We get open shots with that extra pass. It destroys the other team's defense and self-esteem.
"Certain games we've played like we are invincible and others we struggle. If we don't move the ball, if we don't push the ball, don't screen and don't play our game, it's going to be tough."
Especially if the "real'' Nevada team shows up. Pinkney scored just 18 points in the three games prior to the win over Texas when he scored a team-high 15, and Nick Fazekas has been struggling with his shot the last four games since he broke his nose in the Fresno State game, making only 20 of his last 50 (40 percent), and had a season-low of 10 points against Texas. Nevada needs its twin towers to step up and have big games.
'The mask didn't have much to do with it," said Fazekas, who will be matched up against 6-10 James Augustine. "I need to concentrate and play how I know I can and get out of this funk. The funk is not the mask. I just haven't been in a groove."
"We can't let him get into a rhythm," Weber said. "He's versatile. If we can disrupt him it's an advantage to us. They have a disciplined offense. They are going to look inside. They crash the boards. It's really going to be a key in the game."
Points could be hard to come by. Illinois' defense has been overshadowed by its defense, according to Fox.
"I think Illinois' defense is terrific," Fox said. "I think Illinois gets a lot of things off its defense. I'm not sure how many points they've scored off turnovers, but I know it's a lot. They can beat you a lot of different ways. They can beat you with their defense, their offense and their rebounding.
"We'll have to make a lot of shots, we're going to have to find a way to defend and rebound and make the basketball plays necessary to play."