Norfolk St.-Illinois Preview

Associated Press  |  Last updated December 11, 2012
Illinois is riding plenty of momentum after defeating its first ranked opponent this season, but new coach John Groce doesn't want his team to get too confident. He keeps reminding his players what happened the last time they came off an emotional victory. The 10th-ranked Illini will try to improve to 11-0 for the first time in seven seasons on Tuesday night when they meet Norfolk State for the first time. Four days after defeating Butler 78-61 for the Maui Invitational title, Illinois narrowly missed being an upset victim on Nov. 25 with a 63-62 home win versus Gardner-Webb. The Illini, who are on the verge of their best start since opening with 15 wins in 2005-06, are trying to avoid a similar letdown after defeating then-No. 10 Gonzaga 85-74 on Saturday at Spokane. "The last time we were in this situation where we came off an emotional win ... I didn't feel like we played particularly well, so that's our challenge heading into tomorrow night's game," said Groce, who is off to the best start by a first-year Illinois coach in the team's modern history. Slowing down senior guard Brandon Paul will be a major challenge for the Spartans (6-5). Paul, the team leader and second in the Big Ten with 19.5 points per game, was named the conference's player of the week after hitting five 3-pointers and scoring 35 on Saturday. "He looked like a high-level NBA guy,'' Bulldogs coach Mark Few said of Paul, who now has five of the team's six 20-point games this season. "We didn't have a guy who could guard him one-on-one basically.'' Pendarvis Williams or Malcolm Hawkins will likely get that assignment on Tuesday. Even if they can limit Paul's contributions, the Illini are loaded with shooters. D.J. Richardson is tied with Paul with a team-best 28 3-pointers, forward Tyler Griffey has 17 and Tracy Abrams and Joseph Bertrand each have 10 of the team's nation-leading 108. Illinois is shooting 40.8 percent from 3-point range after connecting on just 30.4 percent last season. The Spartans, though, arrive in Champaign after holding Maryland-Baltimore County to 0-for-16 shooting from beyond the arc in Sunday's 83-66 victory. Norfolk State is limiting opponents to 28.6 percent from long range. However, the team has room for improvement in other areas after missing 12 of 32 free throws and getting outrebounded by six. "Coach (Anthony Evans) is staying on us - he's not satisfied with the win, and we're not satisfied where we're at," senior forward Rob Johnson, the MEAC defensive player of the week, told the school's official website after posting his second career double-double with 17 points and 11 rebonds. "We want to go in (to Illinois then to No. 25 North Carolina State on Saturday) and compete - our goal is to win the game," he added. The possible return of leading rebounder Rashid Gaston (7.0 per game) from a one-game absence (concussion) could help as the Spartans face a ranked team for the first time since last season ended with an 84-50 loss to then-No. 25 Florida on March 18. Two days earlier, Norfolk State upset then-No. 3 Missouri 86-84 in its first NCAA tournament game. Illinois has won 20 in a row at home against non-conference teams since falling 77-71 to Dayton on March 24, 2010.
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