Last year, Air Force players watched on television as Illinois played North Carolina in the national championship game. Thursday, the Falcons will play the Fighting Illini in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in San Diego. “We’ve checked them out a little bit I’d say,” senior guard Antoine Hood said. “These are the kind of games you live to play for.” As a No. 13 seed, Air Force wasn’t going to get any breaks in its firstround matchup. But it would be hard to draw a tougher one than Illinois, which finished second in the Big Ten (11-5) and 25-6 overall. Illinois’ seeding probably dropped to a No. 4 after a 61-56 loss to Michigan State in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois coach Bruce Weber has big-time players in senior guard Dee Brown and 6-foot-10 senior center James Augustine, both of whom were keys in last year’s NCAA runner-up finish. “We know that defensively, they’re up and into you with great quickness and physicality,” Falcons coach Jeff Bzdelik said. “They really rotate well, very quick hands, very similar to the kind of defense we faced at Washington very early on.” Illinois won’t be entirely caught off-guard by Air Force’s style of play since Northwestern — also of the Big Ten — runs a Princeton-style system. But the Falcons probably will have a slight advantage playing in familiar surroundings at Cox Arena, where San Diego State plays its home games. “We’ve played there, we’ve practiced there, we’ve shot there, we’ve played defense there,” junior guard Matt McCraw said. “I really think it’s going to help.”
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