CHAMPAIGN — As an eighth-grader in December 2004, D.J. Richardson sat in front of the television in his Peoria home and watched Illinois put a beating on No. 1 Wake Forest.
“Man, that game was kind of crazy,” Richardson said.
A budding basketball prodigy back then, Richardson dreamed of wearing an Illinois uniform and one day having a moment similar to what that 2004-05 team that played for the national championship experienced that night.
When ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to town during Richardson’s freshman season for Illinois’ upset of Michigan State, Richardson had his moment.
His steal and dunk in the closing seconds was the exclamation point and sent the sold-out Assembly Hall into a frenzy.
“The feeling I had when that happened, you can’t describe,” Illinois’ senior guard said. “Every time I watch that I get chills. It’s just an amazing crowd to play in front of.”
Richardson is hoping he and his teammates can create an even better moment today with second-ranked Michigan coming to town for a Big Ten tilt (5 p.m., BTN).
When the latest set of rankings was released Monday, Duke was the No. 1 team in the country. But after the Blue Devils were beaten by 27 on Wednesday at Miami, Michigan is the top team in the country at the moment — and it will be official in the new polls with a win today against the Illini.
“It’s an unbelievable opportunity,” senior Tyler Griffey said. “This is a great team. The Big Ten is the best league in the country. You dream of playing in these types of games.”
That win against Wake Forest in 2004 was a rarity for Illinois against teams ranked No. 1 or No. 2 in the country. The Illini are 5-37 all time against teams ranked first or second.
The last win against a team ranked No. 2 in the country was in 1965, an 86-81 win for No. 6 Illinois against Indiana.
The focus for the Illini throughout the season has been to concentrate on one day at a time, one game at a time. No matter the opponent, players and coaches talk of preparing for each opponent equally. But there’s admittedly a little more juice with the high-powered Wolverines and their National Player of the Year candidate, Trey Burke, running the point.
First-year UI coach John Groce is expecting his players to be excited about today’s opportunity.
“You sure hope so. If you don’t, you don’t have a pulse,” Groce said. “They’ve got to embrace challenges and moments.”
The trick will be keeping the emotions in check and not be too excited about playing one of the country’s elite teams.
“Guys like challenges. I love challenges. We’ve got some competitive guys in our locker room, that is what it is. They’ll have some butterflies. If they don’t, something’s wrong,” Groce said. “They should feel that edge and feel that way when they get a chance to compete. (Today) is another opportunity to do that.”
Having gone through the grind of a Big Ten season against some of the top-rated teams in the past, most of the Illinois roster is accustomed to playing in these high-profile games.
Fifth-year transfer Sam McLaurin is on his only go-around in the Big Ten, but he’s played in high-profile games in the past at Coastal Carolina. Most notably, McLaurin and the Chanticleers visited No. 9 Duke during the Blue Devils’ national championship season in 2009-10.
“That was exciting; it was fun,” McLaurin said. “I recall sometimes at Coastal we’d play a good team then we’d play a Division III team. The inconsistencies of teams have your game a little inconsistent. When you’re playing good teams on a regular basis, it’s a lot of fun.”
At Coastal Carolina, the expectation wasn’t to necessarily win against the big-time opponents. It’s different at Illinois, and McLaurin is all for it.
“We’ve played Gonzaga and Butler, Missouri, Minnesota. We expect to win them all,” McLaurin said. “That experience playing at Duke was fun, but we’re looking to get it done.”
Today’s game is the fourth straight sellout at the Assembly Hall. Ticket manager Jason Heggemeyer and his staff have turned up the heat with ticket promotions to create a homecourt advantage for the Illini.
The Orange Krush is jacked up for the game, too.
Krush vice president McKennon Biers said he’s had the Michigan game circled on his calendar for quite a while now.
“We’ve been looking forward to this one. I think everyone is pumped,” the junior from Mendota said. “I’m excited to see another sold-out Assembly Hall crowd. It’s been pretty loud this year, and most of the big games have been over break. Now that students are back, Krush will be back in full force, and I’m excited to see how loud the place can get and see what kind of impact we can have.”
The Illini appreciate the fan support, and they feed off the crowd’s energy.
“You get into the crowd as the game goes on,” Richardson said. “It definitely gets us going. At the same time, it’s always fun, especially if the game is going well for your team. When you’re winning, the crowd gets real rowdy here. We’ve just got to start the game with energy and enthusiasm.”
An energetic crowd will help the Illini if they’re to pull an upset that will look mighty good on their NCAA tournament resume come March. Already with impressive wins against No. 9 Butler, No. 10 Gonzaga and No. 14 Ohio State, a win against the Wolverines would help negate the sting of bad losses to Purdue and Northwestern.
“(The NCAA tourney) is our goal; that’s what we’re here for, that’s our expectation,” Richardson said. “We’re going into this game to see what the coaches have for us on the scouting report and try to get a victory.”
The Illini today host No. 2 Michigan (5 p.m., BTN). Illinois is 5-37 all time against teams ranked in the top two, with all five wins coming at the Assembly Hall. A look:
WINS AGAINST NO. 1
■ No. 5 Illinois 91, No. 1 Wake Forest 73, Dec. 1, 2004
■ No. 4 Illinois 57, No. 1 Michigan State 55, Jan. 11, 1979
WINS AGAINST NO. 2
■ No. 6 Illinois 86, No. 2 Indiana 81, Jan. 4, 1965
■ Illinois 110, No. 2 UCLA 83, Dec. 4, 1964
■ No. 7 Illinois 62, No. 2 San Francisco 33, Dec. 17, 1956