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CHAMPAIGN - Wear comfortable shoes.

That's sound advice if you'll be attending an upcoming Illinois basketball game.

Illini basketball fans have been on their feet a lot lately and during Friday night's 84-46 victory over Tennessee-Martin it seemed like they were out of their seats more than they were in them.

A 20th consecutive sellout crowd stood for seven Rich McBride 3-pointers and saluted him with a rousing standing ovation when he left the floor with a team-high 21 points.

They stood when James Augustine picked up his 11th rebound of the night, which moved him past Efrem Winters as the school's career rebounding leader (854 and counting).

And they continued the tradition of standing until the opponent scores its first point. They stood and they stood and they stood, because the Skyhawks did not score until 5 minutes and 15 seconds had passed. Illinois led 17-0 before Bubba Tolliver hit a free throw and it was 26-1 before Tennessee-Martin made its first basket with 9:12 left in the half.

All in all, an occasion to stand and applaud a perfect 14-0 jaunt through the nonconference portion of the schedule, which means the real fun is just around the corner.

The intensity will grow by leaps and bounds when Big Ten Conference play begins. And for the 6th-ranked Illini, that comes about Thursday when Michigan State, the preseason pick to win the league, comes to the Assembly Hall.

Is Illinois prepared for what comes next?

"That's the last thing I said to them," Coach Bruce Weber said. "I told them the league is tougher this year top to bottom. The Big Ten is No. 1 in the RPI (Ratings Percentage Index). We're No. 1 in the Sagarin Rankings, too. You have four or five (Big Ten) teams in the top 25. That's the first thing.

"Second of all, we've won a bunch of games, not only in the last two years, but over the last four or five years. Illinois has been so successful. We're a marked man. We have to be ready to play.

"We're in the top 10 again, everyone is watching and we have to raise our level of play."

It's hard to imagine Illinois raising it much past the way it played in the opening minutes against Tennessee-Martin (5-5).

Illinois had it all going " air-tight defense, lights-out shooting and home crowd backing that helped extend the Assembly Hall winning streak to 29 games.

Illinois knocked down five of its first six shots including three 3-pointers by McBride to open a 13-0 lead less than three minutes into the action.

"We started in a zone and they jumped up and made shots on us right away and we couldn't stop the bleeding," Tennessee-Martin coach Bret Campbell said.

"When you make shots a team can look real good. When you miss shots a team can look real bad. You saw one very good team and one very bad team."

McBride made six 3-pointers in the first half in what Weber called "his first break-out game since Memphis two years ago."

In that one, as a freshman, McBride hit six 3-pointers and scored 22 points. This time he made seven 3-pointers and settled for 21.

Augustine finished with 19 points and 11 rebounds before he and Dee Brown took permanent seats on the bench with 10:26 to play.

When it was announced to the crowd that he'd become the school's career rebounding leader, Augustine acknowledged it with a wave, then listened as they chanted, "Augie! Augie! Augie!"

"It feels good," Augustine said of the record. "It's an honor. But winning the game is more important and focusing on Michigan State, the task at hand, is more important to me.

"I can enjoy this when I move on with my life, but we have more important things here and Michigan State is next."

Jamar Smith added 11 points and Shaun Pruitt and Calvin Brock each grabbed nine rebounds. And the point guard combo of Brown and Chester Frazier combined for 18 assists and four turnovers with Brown getting 10 and three.

Campbell was impressed with the Illini and has a 78-61 loss at Louisville to use as a comparison.

"It's two different teams," he said. "Louisville sat in a zone most of the game. The pressure Illinois can apply defensively can really expose some weaknesses and we were exposed.

"This is a very good basketball team. The more tape I watched of them the better I thought they were. Coach Weber has done an outstanding job with this crew. I'm not sure there are weaknesses in the armor here. You guys are in for a pretty good year."

Weber is obviously pleased with the start, but knows much bigger challenges await.

"I would not have predicted 14-0," he said. "Mentally I was hoping for 12-2, maybe 11-3. It's still not halfway through the season. This is just the first phase.

"We have the nonconference, the Big Ten, the Big Ten Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. This is building your resume for the NCAA Tournament and we did a nice job building points for down the road. Now comes our second chance.

"We talked about it tonight, winning three in a row (to start league play). That has to be our goal at the beginning. I wasn't sure if we could do it at the beginning, but now I think we can compete for a Big Ten championship."

If it happens, it would be Weber's third in three years.

Mark Tupper can be reached at mtupperyayayherald-review

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