CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) -- Sitting with his right hand wrapped in a thick bandage, Illinois guard Chester Frazier insisted Sunday that the only pain he felt was from not being able to play while his team was bounced from the Big Ten tournament over the weekend.
The cure, if the senior gets his way, will come Thursday when the fifth-seeded Illini (24-9, 11-7 Big Ten) will take on 12-seed Western Kentucky (24-8, 15-3 Sun Belt) in the NCAA Tournament's first round in Portland, Ore.
Whether Frazier, the heart of the team and its defensive backbone, plays, he said Sunday, is up to him after the Illini learned where they're headed.
"Its my career, it's my life, it's my hand," he said, declining to say whether his hand is broken. "Nobody else can tell me what to do with my body. I've been throwing it around my whole 4 years here. ... It's the end of my career, so I've got to make the most of it."
Frazier, a senior, hurt the hand in practice last week, and had it operated on Thursday. The team has been vague about the injury, but said before the Big Ten Tournament that he was unlikely to play, and might miss the NCAAs.
On Sunday, Illinois coach Bruce Weber said trainers have been working on a padded glove for Frazier, and sounded as if he may play, pending a Tuesday trip to the doctor.
"That will give him five days of healing," Weber said.
"If he can -- even with pain -- if he can just pass and dribble," the coach said, "he'll be out there."
The Illini, like the rest of the Big Ten, win with defense. They're the conference's No. 1 defensive team, holding opponents to 56.5 points a game during the regular season.
And Frazier is the key, stalking opponents on the perimeter. He was a member of the Big Ten's all-defensive team this season and the leads the Illini in steals (43) as well as minutes played (33.2). At just 6-2, the senior guard is also the team's second-leading rebounder with 148 -- 107 of them on defense.
But he also runs Illinois' offense, and leads the team in assists, with 5.7 a game.
Whether he can play or not, Weber said, Illinois will need strong games and consistent scoring from a number of players to win.
"When we've been successful, we've had four or five guys in double figures," he said. "That'll be key for us, that we get the balance and get something out of everybody."
Three Illini average double-figure scoring -- Demetri McCamey with 11.5 points, Mike Davis with 11.2 and Mike Tisdale with 10.5. A fourth, guard Trent Meacham, averages 9.8 points a game.
If Frazier can't go Thursday, Weber may have to draw on his long history of willing teams to play above their heads.
Without Frazier, Illinois dominated Michigan in the opening round of the Big Ten Tournament, 60-50, after Weber challenged his players to win without their leader.
And in his first trip to the tournament as a head coach, Weber's Southern Illinois team made an unlikely run to the Sweet 16 in 2002.
He actually started his career in 1980 as a graduate assistant at Western Kentucky, which went to the NCAAs that season.
Weber's Illini have now made the NCAAs in four of his first five seasons, including their 75-70 loss to North Carolina in the title game in 2005, his first year in Champaign. Illinois was knocked out in the first round of the tournament in 2007 by Virginia Tech and is 6-3 in NCAA games under the former Southern Illinois coach.
Last season's squad -- short on shooting talent, experience, and, by the players' admission, lacking in chemistry -- was 16-19 and didn't even make the NIT.
Few observers expected much more than steady improvement this season from a team starting three sophomores.
The Illini instead delivered 23 wins in the regular season, a Top 25 ranking for most of the conference schedule and quick turnaround that has them again in the big dance.
As a five seed, the Illini should be favored Thursday against Western Kentucky, champions of the Sun Belt Conference tournament.
Illinois hadn't been plugged into its No. 5 seed Sunday for more than a few seconds when CBS analyst Seth Davis on the TV network's tournament selection show picked Western Kentucky to knock off the Illini, citing Frazier's injury.
Frazier, when asked about it, just shook his head.
"People didn't pick us to make the tournament, let alone the five seed," he said. "They pick them wrong all the time."
(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)