E. Kentucky-Illinois Preview

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.