Illinois is off to its best start in seven years, but first-year coach John Groce has reason to be concerned with his undefeated team.
Looking to shoot better at home, the banged-up, No. 10 Fighting Illini could face a difficult challenge Sunday night against unbeaten Eastern Kentucky, which features three key players from the state of Illinois.
The Illini (11-0) have not gone this deep into a season without a loss since the 2005-06 squad started 15-0. They cracked the top 10 thanks to an 85-74 win at then-No. 10 Gonzaga last Saturday, having hit 50.0 percent from the field, but they've sandwiched that game with two home victories in which they did not shoot well.
Illinois shot 40.0 percent in a 72-64 win over Western Carolina on Dec. 4 and a season-low 35.0 in Tuesday's 65-54 victory over Norfolk State. The Illini rank among the national leaders from 3-point range at 39.6 percent but went 13 of 47 (27.7 percent) in the last two home games.
They made 6 of 23 from beyond the arc Tuesday and led by only three points with 2:30 to play, but they held the Spartans to three points the rest of the way.
"I don't think over the course of the 40 minutes our energy, our focus, our effort level was where it's been," Groce said.
"They really turned it up, which is great. Or you could say they should be playing that hard all the time."
Star guard Brandon Paul had a team-high 14 points while going 3 of 10 from the field after scoring 35 against Gonzaga. The senior has averaged 14.0 points on 36.8 percent shooting in the last five games at Assembly Hall, including 8 of 27 from 3-point range. In five games away from home, Paul has averaged 23.8 points while hitting 53.7 percent from the field and 20 of 40 on 3s.
He's a 90-percent free-throw shooter (27 of 30) in those five games, compared to 56.8 percent in Champaign this season. Illinois is among the nation's worst foul-shooting teams at home, making 59.6 percent, but one of the best away from home (82.8).
While the team's shooting struggles at Assembly Hall are concerning, Groce also hopes starting guards D.J. Richardson (12.1 ppg) and Tracy Abrams (11.4) will be able to quickly recover from injuries suffered Tuesday. Richardson bruised his shoulder in the first half but returned to score seven points in 13 minutes of the second half. Abrams bruised his shin but managed nine points in 23 minutes.
Groce may need a healthy squad and improved shooting to remain undefeated.
"We'll get an opportunity on Sunday," he said. "We'll have to play better than we did (Tuesday), for sure."
Illinois has won 21 straight home games against non-conference opponents, but Eastern Kentucky (9-0) is off to its best start since the 1946-47 team opened 11-0. The Colonels are among the nation's top shooting teams at 49.5 percent but will face their first ranked opponent this season.
Eastern Kentucky is paced by guards Glenn Cosey (17.7 ppg) and Mike DiNunno (14.1). Cosey scored a season-high 23 in a 63-52 win at Chattanooga last Saturday.
Chicago resident DiNunno was not heavily recruited by the Illini and spent his first two collegiate seasons at Northern Illinois.
"I will try to treat it like a regular game and not try to hype it up too much," DiNunno told his school's official website.
Key Colonels reserve Jeff Johnson (5.8 ppg) went 3-0 at Assembly Hall while attending Champaign's Centennial High School. Junior Marcus Lewis, who hails from suburban Chicago, averages 5.1 points off the bench.
This is the schools' first meeting since Illinois' 79-56 home win Dec. 6, 1985.
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