CHAMPAIGN — Eastern experts aren’t the only ones wondering whether Illinois’ No. 10 ranking is valid ... whether the three-point shooting will hold up ... whether the lack of an inside game will prove costly.
Norfolk State also took some convincing Tuesday night.
A .500 team (6-6), the Spartans clung within 54-51 in the last two minutes before John Groce’s 11-0 Illini — surviving despite shoddy free throw shooting — salted away a 64-54 triumph.
For a team that has excelled on the road, the Illini were shaky again in the home Assembly Hall. They struggled from the arc (6 of 23), shot 35 percent from the field and missed 11 charities, most of them late.
Counting the overtime win at Hawaii, Illinois stands 5-0 in contests that were tossups in the last five minutes, four of them at home against Gardner-Webb, Western Carolina, Georgia Tech and Norfolk State.
“It is perplexing,” Groce said. “I thought we were ready. We’re trying to reach a level of consistency, and that wasn’t the case tonight. When we’re not tough and together, anything can happen.”
The UI crowd topped 14,000 for the third time in six games but still hasn’t caught fire.
Looking back, there was a multi-year stretch beginning in 2001 when Illini Nation, as a basketball fan base, could look Indiana and Kentucky in the eye.
Those cage-crazy rivals jumped off the cliff a long time ago. They actually sell out for intrasquad games. Just this season, with Indiana fielding a top-rated team, hundreds of disappointed fans were turned away from Hoosier Hysteria, the IU’s version of Midnight Madness at the 17,472-seat Hall.
If Illinoisans don’t grab the 2,000 tickets currently remaining for IU on Feb. 7 (the only game between the two), look for the nearby Hoosiers to pick them up.
“We’d like to keep the red out of our building,” ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer said. “We have some good momentum going. We sold 1,500 tickets in the first 24 hours this week for our January special (three games for $49).”
It’s a tough pull after so many fans fell off the bandwagon last season. But there is history to indicate they’ll be back.
Bill Self’s three Illini teams sold out at 16,000-plus in 28 of 40 home games, and Bruce Weber’s gang climbed to No. 1 by routing Wake Forest 91-73 on Dec. 1, 2004 ... and kicked off a wild stretch of 60 consecutive sellouts, mostly at the 16,618 figure.
This streak ended in the final home game of the 2008 season, the fans by then disillusioned by a 5-13 Big Ten season.
It hasn’t been the same in the four years since, the lone sellout last season coming on a January Sunday against Wisconsin.
It is difficult to comprehend these narrow wins against midmajor opponents.
Brandon Paul, deemed by basketball writers as the National Player of the Week for his outburst at Gonzaga, had a mediocre 3-for-10 night from the field as the Spartans nullified his driving attempts. He led with 14 points and eight rebounds but was no factor late.
D.J. Richardson produced in the clutch despite being flattened and spending lengthy moments lying on the court before halftime. Richardson suffered a shoulder bruise.
Shaking it off, Richardson racked seven straight Illini points in extending the lead from 49-47 to 56-51, and centers Nnanna Egwu and Sam McLaurin stepped up to convert free throws when others were missing.
It amounts to another game to build on. And now comes Eastern Kentucky, unbeaten and showing a 68-44 rout of Norfolk State.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.