Auburn (5-6) vs. (12) Illinois (12-1)
Saturday, December 29, 2:15 p.m. (et)
The Sports Network
By Frank Haynes, Senior College Basketball Editor
FACTS & STATS: Site: United Center (20,000) -- Chicago, Illinois. Television: Big Ten Network. Home Record: AU 4-3, UI 7-0. Away Record: AU 1-1, UI 2-0. Neutral Record: AU 0-2, UI 3-1. Conference Record: AU 0-0, UI 0-0. Series Record: Illinois leads, 1-0.
GAME NOTES: Hoping to bounce back from their first loss of the season, the 12th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini head to their home away from home for Saturday's clash with the Auburn Tigers at the United Center in Chicago.
Auburn comes in a game under .500 (5-6), as the Tigers' season has been a tale of two streaks. AU dropped five straight decisions from Nov. 15-30, but then went on a three-game win streak from Dec. 11-18. A 74-67 loss at home to Winthrop three days before Christmas put and end to that run, and the team will close out the non-league portion of its schedule with this bout and next Wednesday's clash with Florida State. The SEC slate gets underway a week later versus LSU.
Illinois got off to an amazing start by winning its first 12 games, with signature victories coming against Butler, Georgia Tech and Gonzaga. Unfortunately for first-year head coach John Groce and his squad, it fell to No. 12 Missouri last Saturday in St. Louis, 82-73, and this is UI's final non- conference game before opening Big Ten action at Purdue next Wednesday.
Illinois won the only previous meeting with Auburn by claiming a 107-103 decision in Champaign on Dec. 12, 1987.
Despite having a losing record, Auburn's statistical figures aren't all that bad as the team averages 67.2 ppg while allowing 62.6 ppg, and its foes are shooting below 40 percent from the field. The Tigers also own favorable margins in both rebounding (+3.2) and turnovers (+1.7), and they can boast the fact that they have two of the top scorers in the SEC on the roster in the form of Chris Denson (17.0 ppg, 4..0 rpg) and Frankie Sullivan (16.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.6 apg). Sullivan is tied for fourth in the league in scoring, and Denson would be right there as well but he has appeared in only four games. Sullivan had 22 points and Denson poured in 18, but still the Tigers fell short in their bid for their fourth straight win as they dropped a seven-point verdict to Winthrop last weekend. Auburn shot just 38.3 percent from the field, which included a dreadful 3-of-23 showing from 3-point range, while the visitors, who turned the ball over 19 times, made good on 49.0 percent of their total shots.
With 12 wins in 13 opportunities, it's not surprising that Illinois is in the black across the stat sheet, the team averaging 76.6 ppg while yielding just 64.1 ppg. Brandon Paul (19.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 3.6 apg) is one of the Big Ten's top all-around performers, and he is within a point of taking over the league's scoring lead. UI's other double-digit scorers include D.J. Richardson (11.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Tracy Abrams (10.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.1 apg), while Tyler Griffey and Joseph Bertrand net 9.3 and 8.9 ppg, respectively. As a team, the Illini are draining 37.3 percent of their 3-point tries, while holding the opposition to 40.5 percent overall field goal efficiency. Illinois is also on the plus side in rebounding (+1.8) and turnovers (+2.8). Paul scored 23 points, grabbed eight boards and logged five assists, but that effort went for naught as the Illini dropped a nine-point decision to Missouri last weekend. Illinois shot just 33.8 percent from the floor, missing 24 of its 32 3-point attempts along the way. The Illini committed only seven turnovers in the contest, but Mizzou claimed a resounding 58-35 edge on the glass.
Illinois is the better team in this matchup, but don't expect Auburn to roll over and hand the game to the Illini. Sure UI will have a whole lot of fans in the stands, but it will still need to be on top of things if it hopes to go into Big Ten play on a positive note.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Illinois 75, Auburn 65
12/29 10:33:30 ET