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


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


Groce may need a healthy squad and improved shooting to remain


“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


“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.