The 10th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini attempt to continue their run as one of the nation's biggest surprises when they play host to the Norfolk State Spartans on Tuesday night at Assembly Hall.
After winning an NCAA Tournament game last season as a No. 15 seed, Norfolk State started the 2012-13 campaign off rough with losses in five of its first seven games, but since then it has bounced back with four straight victories to move back above .500. The Spartans most recently hosted UMBC on Sunday and came away with their most convincing win of the year, 83-66.
Illinois started the season off the national radar, but it began to turn some heads with a strong showing at the Maui Invitational, which culminated in a 76-61 win over Butler in the title game. The Illini cemented themselves as one of the country's elite teams on Saturday when it went on the road and took down No. 10 Gonzaga, 85-74, for their 10th straight win.
This will mark the first-ever meeting between the two programs.
Norfolk State has had difficulty putting up points with consistency on the season, scoring 66.2 ppg on just 41.9 percent from the floor, but that was not the case against UMBC. It shot a lofty 54 percent from the field in the 17- point victory, including 60 percent from three-point range. Malcolm Hawkins (20 points) and Pendarvis Williams (19 points) each shot 3-of-5 from beyond the arc, while Williams added seven rebounds and five assists. Rob Johnson also had a big game, tallying a double-double with 17 points and 11 boards, and while Jamel Fuentes was just 2-of-10 from the field, he dished out nine assists, upping his season average to 5.8 dimes per contest. Six different Spartans average at least 7.4 ppg, with Williams (12.1 ppg) and Hawkins (12.0 ppg) leading the way. Rashid Gaston (7.6 ppg) leads the team with 7.0 rpg for a squad that grabs exactly as many boards per game as its opponents (36.4).
After heading into intermission tied at 41-41, Illinois was able to pull away after halftime by hitting on 60 percent of its field goal attempts in the final 20 minutes. The catalyst in the victory was Brandon Paul, who scored a season-high 35 points, his second-career 30-plus point game. The senior guard shot 10-of-16 from the floor, including 5-of-9 from 3-point range, drained 10- of-11 from the free-throw line, and added three assists, three steals, and two blocks in a performance that helped him earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors. Tracy Abrams (14 points) and D.J. Richardson (11 points, six rebounds) were also essential in the road win. On the season, the Illini are able to put up nearly 80 ppg thanks in large part to their prowess from beyond the arc, as they make 10.8 treys per game at a 40.8 percent clip. Paul has been one of the nation's best players through the first month of the year, scoring 19.5 ppg while filling up the stat sheet elsewhere too (4.4 ppg, 3.8 apg, 1.4 spg, 0.8 bpg). Richardson (12.2 ppg) is tied with Paul for the team-lead in 3-pointers (28), and Abrams (11.6 ppg) rounds out a very impressive trio of guards.