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CHAMPAIGN - The only slip thus far hasn't been costly for the University of Illinois basketball team.

Unless you're Bruce Weber.

The Illini coach broke his ankle doing work in his backyard Monday morning. Weber coached through the pain Tuesday night when 12th-ranked Illinois beat North Carolina 68-64 in Chapel Hill to run its record to 6-0.

OK, so these aren't the same Illini who won their first 29 games last season en route to an NCAA record-tying 37 victories and made the school's first appearance in the national championship game. You don't lose three starters - including two first-round NBA draft picks - and not suffer.

Anyone who saw them squeak past Wichita State 55-54 last week would agree. And their free throw shooting (58.6 percent) is enough to make you cover your eyes when they're at the line.

However, it might not be far-fetched to believe Illinois again can run the table in the nonconference part of its schedule and head into the Big Ten Conference opener against league favorite Michigan State on Jan. 5 with a 14-0 record.

"The best part is our defense. We make it tough for people. We make them earn points," said Weber. "That's something we emphasized early - just playing hard and playing defense. The rebounding has been a little disappointing at times, but I think we made progress early last week."

Illinois' opponents are averaging 59.7 points per game while shooting 41.6 percent from the field and 27.6 percent from 3-point range. Illinois also is outrebounding its foes by a 7.7 margin.

The Illini, who played their first six games in 12 days, took their first day off in almost two weeks Wednesday. That gave Weber a chance to mend a little, too, as he sat in bed making telephone calls and watching tapes and games while his wife, Megan, gave him some TLC.

It was back to work Thursday as Illinois began preparations for Saturday's 1 p.m. game against Xavier (3-0) at the United Center in Chicago. Weber even plans to get out in the Chicago area and recruit tonight, although his wife or a chauffeur will have to drive him.

Xavier starts another busy stretch for the Illini, who play four games in eight days before taking a week off for final examinations. Illinois is home against Arkansas-Little Rock Monday and Georgetown Thursday before meeting Oregon on Dec. 10 at Portland.

Oregon could provide the biggest hurdle to going into January undefeated. Yet being unbeaten heading into the Big Ten season isn't on Weber's mind like it was last season.

"Each day it's kind of our goal to get a little better for extended periods of time and not have such big valleys and be a little more consistent, especially offensively," said Weber. "Defensively we have been pretty good to this point. Hopefully that will continue to carry us."

As expected, four-year starters Dee Brown and James Augustine have carried the Illini. The 6-foot-10 Augustine is averaging team highs of 15.0 points and 9.5 rebounds per game. He has shown a more aggressive attitude on the offensive end, although Weber would like to see more.

Despite shooting problems, Brown is scoring 14.2 points as he gets used to full-time point guard responsibilities.

Junior Rich McBride has been steady at the other guard spot. McBride is scoring 11.0 points, shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range (18 of 43) and handing out 23 assists with only six turnovers.

Sophomore forward Brian Randle (8.3 points, 4.5 rebounds) has begun to flash his immense potential the past two games after sitting out last season with a broken hand. The other starter, sophomore center Shaun Pruitt (6.7 points, 5.7 points), has turned into a physical presence inside.

Freshman guard Jamar Smith provides instant offense off the bench, making 13 of 27 shots from outside the arc and scoring 8.7 points. After a slow start, Illinois State transfer Marcus Arnold seems to have settled down and given quality minutes when Augustine and Pruitt need a breather. A broken nose has slowed junior forward Warren Carter (5.3 points).

"We can get better. The best thing about the Carolina game is I didn't think we played great and we still won a game on the road in a tough venue," said Weber.

Brown turned into a deadly 3-point shooter last season, making 43.4 percent in becoming a consensus first-team all-American.

Weber believes the absence of Deron Williams and Luther Head, along with breaking his foot in June at the NBA pre-draft camp, have contributed to Brown's early shooting woes. Weber doesn't expect it to last all season.

"We had great ball movement last year and he got wide-open H-O-R-S-E shots. This year he's not getting quite those looks and when he does get one he doesn't have the rhythm he had last year," said Weber. "Also when you don't shoot for 14 weeks (because of the injury) - then you're still shooting one-legged for a while - he's still got to get some of that rhythm, strength, push and timing all back."

Don't tell Xavier coach Sean Miller that Brown's play has regressed any this season.

"Any time you put that senior guard on the court in college basketball who is as talented and as experienced winning as he is, he's able to kind of carry that torch with their team this year," said Miller. "He continues to make the other players around him better."


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