N. Colorado-Illinois Preview
Illinois has taken advantage of an early schedule featuring a majority of its games on campus, but that's about to change.
Playing at Assembly Hall for the last time this calendar year, the 16th-ranked Illini look to extend their regular-season home winning streak over non-conference opponents to 18 when they face Northern Colorado for the first time Sunday.
After this game, the Illini (9-1) square off against Illinois-Chicago at the United Center, face No. 15 Missouri in St. Louis and open Big Ten play at Iowa before returning home to face Wisconsin on Jan. 2.
That stretch of games away from campus will be a little different for Illinois, which has played six of its first 10 contests in Champaign.
The Illini have won their first six at Assembly Hall by an average of 20.7 points, and extended their regular-season home winning streak over non-conference foes to 17 games with Wednesday's 74-63 victory over Oakland.
The game got off to a bizarre start, as the first seven-plus minutes were played with an undersized women's ball. Illini point guard Demetri McCamey noticed the odd ball early but couldn't convince the officials.
Both teams struggled with their shooting with the wrong-sized ball, and Illinois' troubles continued until halftime.
The Illini were 10 of 32 from the field in the first half - including 1 of 8 from beyond the arc - and went into the break trailing 28-24. Illinois finally got going after halftime, hitting 15 of 26 shots, and outscored the Golden Grizzlies 50-35.
McCamey finished with 30 points, one shy of his career high, and sophomore guard D.J. Richardson matched a season best with 16.
While McCamey is the undisputed leader of the Illini, averaging team highs of 16.3 points and 7.2 assists, Richardson has come up strong lately, averaging 14.8 points on 62.9 percent shooting in the last four home games.
Coach Bruce Weber was happy his team survived a letdown after consecutive impressive wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga.
"We've been playing on a pretty big high and we've played pretty good basketball (but) you know there's gonna be a letdown," he said.
Losing to Northern Colorado (4-3) would be a major letdown for an Illini team that has not lost to a non-conference team at home in the regular season since falling to Clemson 76-74 on Dec. 2, 2008.
The Bears' four wins have come over Black Hills State, an NAIA Division II school, Wyoming, Bethune-Cookman and Tabor, from the NAIA. They're 0-4 all-time against Big Ten teams and have been outscored by an average of 32.3 points in losing their three games to Top 25 opponents since becoming a Division I program in 2003-04.
Although it hasn't defeated the stiffest of competition, Northern Colorado looked sharp in its last two victories.
After shooting a season-best 61.1 percent in a 69-45 win over Bethune-Cookman in Las Vegas on Nov. 27, the Bears shot 52.7 percent in last Saturday's 84-52 victory over Black Hills State. Senior guard Devon Beitzel, Northern Colorado's leading scorer at 16.7 points per game, is 12 of 17 from the floor in the last two contests.
"We've played two pretty ballgames in a row now," coach B.J. Hill said.
This will be Northern Colorado's first game against a ranked opponent since losing to No. 18 Gonzaga 77-57 on Dec. 17, 2007.