Illinois hopes to regain its long-range touch after its recent struggles finally caught up to the team in its first loss of the season.
The 12th-ranked Illini will try to get back on track on Saturday when they host Auburn at the United Center before opening Big Ten play at Purdue on Jan. 2.Illinois (12-1), which is tied for tops in the nation with 9.8 3-pointers per game, shot a season-low 25.0 percent (8 for 32) from long range on Dec. 22 in a 82-73 loss to then-No. 12 Missouri in the annual Braggin' Rights game.While leading scorer Brandon Paul (19.2) had a team-high 23 points, the backcourt of Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams combined to shoot 10 of 40 (25.0 percent) from the floor -- including 3 of 20 (15.0) from beyond the arc.Richardson, who made 36.4 percent from 3-point range in his first 10 games, looks to break out of his 3 of 18 slump from that distance over the last three games.After shooting 41.9 percent from 3-point range in its first eight games, Illinois has hit on just 29.7 percent from long distance in December."We just have to get a little better with the execution stuff," coach John Groce said.The Illini have won seven games by an average of 19.9 points when shooting better than 37.0 percent from 3-point range, but only have a scoring margin of plus-4.0 in six games when shooting below that mark.They'll try to be more efficient from beyond the arc against an Auburn team that has been tough on four consecutive weak opponents from 3-point distance."Illinois is a very talented team coming off a tough loss to Missouri," Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. "The entire team is capable of making 3-point shots and can go off."After a 2-5 start, Barbee's Tigers (5-6) limited Grambling, Furman, Tennessee Tech and Winthrop to a combined 17 of 83 (20.5 percent) from 3-point range in winning three of their last four.However, Christian Farmer's four second-half 3-pointers helped Winthrop snap Auburn's three-game winning streak with a 74-67 victory on Dec. 22.Guard Frankie Sullivan, the team's scoring leader (16.9), will try to build off a 22-point effort after nearly leading the Tigers to a comeback victory from 16 down."It is very exciting," said Sullivan of playing the Illini. "We have an opportunity to put a good win on our resume. It is going to be a great challenge, and we will be up for the challenge."Chris Denson, another high-scoring guard, has given the team a boost after being academically ineligible the fall semester. The junior has averaged 17.0 points while shooting 57.5 percent from the floor in his first four games after finishing with 18 on 6 of 13 shooting against the Eagles.The Tigers, though, look to rebound after shooting a season-low 13.0 percent from beyond the arc (3 of 23) against Winthrop and 38.3 percent overall.Illinois defeated Auburn in the only other meeting between the teams, 107-103 in overtime in the championship game of the Illini Classic on Dec. 12, 1987.While the Illini have dropped three straight and five of six at the United Center, the Tigers have lost eight straight overall against ranked opponents.