Paul Sullivan: As Illinois seeks to end its Sweet 16 drought, it must squelch the storybook ending for Duquesne’s retiring coach

OMAHA, Neb. — LeBron James, who played high school basketball in Akron, Ohio, under Duquesne coach Keith Dambrot and is best friends with assistant coach Dru Joyce, sent the Dukes pairs of his signature shoes before the NCAA Tournament.

James also has been one of their biggest supporters on social media.

What’s it like to have the king on your side during March Madness?

“Well, it would be better if he was on our team,” Dambrot replied. “Then we might have a little bit of an advantage, right? He would be hard to deal with.”

The 11th-seeded Dukes won their first tournament game since 1969 on Thursday with an upset of No. 6 seed BYU at CHI Health Center, and they face an even more difficult task Saturday night against third-seeded Illinois (7:40 p.m., TNT).

It’s gotta be the shoes, right?

Not really. Actually it’s Duquesne’s smothering defense that has gotten it this far, and that physical approach could give the Illini fits if the Dukes repeat their opening performance.

“Just understand they’re going to try to crawl up in us, try to kind of poke us,” Illini forward Coleman Hawkins said. “As long as we stay composed and ball tough, catch and receive passes with two hands, move the ball when they collapse and just be a tougher team, we’ll be able to weather any storm that comes our way and not let them get in our heads.

”They have the mindset they’re the toughest team on the court whenever they go out there, so just be aware of not falling into any unnecessary roughness or anything like that.”

The Illini enter with the nation’s second-best offensive efficiency rating and showed during their opening win over Morehead State that it’s not just the Terrence Shannon Jr. show. Dain Dainja’s career-best game and a triple-double by Marcus Domask sparked an eventual rout after Shannon’s brilliant first half kept them from falling behind.

Dambrot, 65, who is retiring after the season, said the Dukes need to grind it out and can’t “allow the game to get into the 90s and 80s” to have a chance.

“We went from (facing) the 10th-best offensive team in the country to the second-best offensive team in the country,” Dambrot said. “We’re appreciative of that. Terrence Shannon is a big challenge. Reminds me of LeBron in the open court. Thankfully not quite as good as LeBron, but pretty good.”

Dainja’s dominance Thursday — 21 points on 9-for-9 shooting with eight rebounds and two blocks — was one of those March Madness moments that can push a team to greater heights. Dainja said he felt “unstoppable … before I stepped on the court.”

“That’s just who I am,” he said. “I feel that’s part of my identity, being confident. That’s always been instilled in my training. I do my drills and everything with confidence.”

Only a month ago, Dainja received two minutes of playing time in back-to-back games against Maryland and Penn State. He said he accepted coach Brad Underwood’s decision and simply worked harder in practice.

“I’m going to try to kill somebody in practice,” he said with a smile. “That’s my mentality. Those little things keep me going. I know I’m a good player. It was just me going to the coaches and asking, ‘What do I need to do to get better?’ ”

In the three Big Ten and NCAA tournament games in which he has played between 20 and 23 minutes, Dainja is shooting 87% (20 for 23) with 23 rebounds. Dambrot said Dainja’s presence inside could be the difference between the Illini being a good team and a great one.

“The biggest thing that has made them better is the big guy has played better, and he’s played more, which gives them a legitimate chance to win the national championship,” Dambrot said. “I think without him they would have very little chance to win the national championship.

“You have to have somebody dominating that can score the ball inside at times. Otherwise you’re relying on just slashing to the rim and jump shooting. So he gives them an opportunity to get better, and you can see (Underwood) playing him more and more and more.”

While Underwood said he was “ecstatic” about Dainja’s performance, he disagreed with the assessment. He noted the Illini were No. 2 in offensive efficiency without Dainja being a significant contributor most nights.

“A lot of that he was part of, but a lot of that he wasn’t,” Underwood said. “We posed a lot of people problems with a pick-and-pop five, so I don’t know (about Dambrot’s statement). Everybody has their own opinion, but I sure like having him.”

There’s no doubt the Illini were on a different level when Dainja began to percolate. Still, Dainja doesn’t start for the Illini, who need to come out with a renewed intensity against Duquesne. They fell behind by double digits in all three of their Big Ten tournament wins and were down 9-0 to Morehead State less than two minutes into Thursday’s win.

Guard Luke Goode said the start of the 73-61 win over Iowa in the regular-season finale is something the Illini need to emulate.

“We came out and punched them in the mouth right at the beginning of the game,” Goode said. “They missed shots they typically make just because of our intensity. That’s something we’ve got to get back to doing.”

The pressure will be squarely on Illinois, which is seeking to get into the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. The Illini enter as nine-point favorites over the Atlantic 10 Tournament champions.

Dambrot’s players — and no doubt James — would love nothing better than to see the coach go out with a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s up to the Illini to squash the Dukes’ storybook ending and start a new chapter of their own.