CHAMPAIGN — Familiar faces and familiar styles accompany unbeaten Eastern Kentucky’s visit to the Assembly Hall Sunday for a 5 p.m. game against No. 10 Illinois.
Eastern Kentucky brings its turnover-generating defense along with three players who hail from the state of Illinois.
Eastern Kentucky ranks No. 2 nationally in forcing turnovers and generally cashes those in on the other end. Through nine games the team has a 224-112 advantage in points off turnovers.
Illini coach John Groce split a pair of games with Eastern Kentucky during his time as head coach at Ohio University and said coach Jeff Neubauer, a former John Beilein assistant at West Virginia, is thriving with his most complete team.
“Year in and year out he’s one of the best coaches in the country,” Groce said. “They’ve always had a good offense but now they have a great defense so you have both sides of the ball clicking.”
Eastern Kentucky (9-0) is off to its best start in 66 years. It relies on a pair of small but high-scoring guards, one of whom played against Illinois at the Assembly Hall in the 2009-10 season as a freshman at Northern Illinois.
Mike DiNunno scored four points in Illinois’ 80-61 victory over Northern Illinois, but now averages 14.1 points as a senior for Eastern Kentucky. DiNunno attended Von Steuben High School in Chicago and played at Northern for two seasons before transferring.
Jeff Johnson, a 6-7, 251-pounder, attended Champaign Centennial High School where he was a teammate of current Illini Rayvonte Rice.
“I’ve played in the Assembly Hall and I’m 3-0 there in my career,” Johnson said, recalling his high school days. “It’s exciting because I get to go back and have a lot of friends and family see me play. I’m expecting anywhere from 50 to 100 to come watch so there will be more maroon there than you’d expect.”
Marcus Lewis is another Illinois native, a 6-4 guard from Streamwood who attended Parkland College his freshman year. Groce also knows Orlando Williams, a 6-4 guard who transferred from Miami University and becomes eligible Sunday. “He’s a gifted scorer,” Groce said.
Groce said he’s generally pleased with the way Illinois (11-0) has played, but noted that inconsistent performances lately against Norfolk State and Western Carolina tell him there’s still work to do.
“We have talked a lot about being consistent in our approach and playing with more consistency,” he said. “I feel like we played too up and down (against Norfolk State). Our effort and energy was good at times but not good all the time and that’s what we want to be our standard.”
Groce said D.J. Richardson (shoulder bruise) and Tracy Abrams (shin) have had no lingering effects of injuries suffered against Norfolk State.
Eastern Kentucky’s top scorer is Glenn Cosey, a 6-foot junior college transfer averaging 17.7 points per game.