-- Thirty years have passed since Illinois and Notre Dame played each other in basketball, long enough in the opinion of Midwest fans in general and both schools' partisans.
Seemingly natural rivals from neighboring states who try to recruit many of the same players, the Fighting Illini and the Fighting Irish finally will meet Saturday with even more at stake than area bragging rights. The two will tip off at the RCA Dome followed by Marquette-Missouri, with the winners headed for the NCAA tournament's round of 16.
Illinois Coach Bill Self, a native Oklahoman, and Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey, from the Washington area, said today that since getting to know each other they have talked about possibly resuming the schools' annual meeting in Chicago at some point, maybe a few years from now. Illinois (25-6), a No. 4 seed, and Notre Dame (23-9), a No. 5, will be playing for a spot in the West Region semifinals in Anaheim, Calif., next weekend.
Both coaches, in their third seasons at their current schools, have crossed paths on the recruiting trail and taken a liking to one another.
"We've started a personal relationship, although we're not buddies, we're not close friends," Self said, "but I hope there's mutual respect from both parties."
"We keep banging heads recruiting," Brey said. "I've gotten to know him a little bit since he came to the Midwest and I got out here. I have a lot of respect for him."
Self, 42, is a tall, husky man who generally wears conservative suits and most times appears well under control on the sidelines. He was a high school star and a four-year letter-winner at Oklahoma State, where he worked as an assistant coach before taking the head coaching jobs at Oral Roberts and later Tulsa. He's taken the Illini to the top of the Big Ten and on to the round of 8 in 2001 and the round of 16 last season.
This year he has helped sustain Illinois's tradition of success by nurturing three freshman starters and bringing out the best in 6-foot-10 senior forward Brian Cook, the Big Ten player of the year.
Cook, who has been the Illinois anchor, and Dee Brown, a quick freshman guard, lead the team in scoring; they are the same type of players Notre Dame used to advantage in outlasting Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Thursday night, freshman forward Torin Francis and sophomore guard Chris Thomas.
"I know what our goals are and I'm sure Mike has similar goals for his program," Self said. "I'll wish him a happy birthday before the game" -- Brey turns 44 Saturday -- "but I'm not going to hope he has a very pleasant one."
Brey's first birthday present would be a healthy senior veteran Matt Carroll. Notre Dame's top scorer at 20.6 suffered a badly twisted ankle Thursday night and was held to two points in limited action.
"He's very sore," Brey said. "If we played today, I don't know if we'd have had his services. We've got a day to work on him. Our trainer has been working to get that ankle in a position where we can play him, get him taped up, give him some aspirin and start him tomorrow and see how it goes."
The Irish will be trying to make the round of 16 for the first time since 1987. Like Self, Brey has enjoyed some tournament success in the previous two seasons, winning first-round games but then losing. The onetime DeMatha guard is looking for the total-game effort that he learned long ago under Morgan Wootten; the Irish failed to deliver it in second-round games the last two years.
"We have kids in our locker room who have been to this point before," Brey said. "We played great in this game my first two years, against Mississippi and Duke, but we played, like, for 30 minutes and 35 minutes. You've got to play 40 minutes against Illinois. I think this group knows it."