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December 28, 2012

Auburn hoops: Tigers return to action in tall task against No. 12 Illinois at the United Center

Grambling St vs AuburnAUBURN, Ala. – Frankie Sullivan has been itching for this game.

Wiping away the stink of a bad home loss last Saturday is one thing. But hey: it’s the house Michael Jordan built.

“A lot of kids grow up wanting to play in an NBA arena, but it is special when you know Jordan played there,” Sullivan said. “It is going to be a great experience, and I can’t wait for the opportunity to showcase my talent, and our team’s as well at the United Center.”

Auburn (5-6) has a tall task Saturday afternoon in Chicago, taking on No. 12 Illinois (12-1) at the United Center tipping off at 2:15 p.m. ET on Big Ten Network. It’s technically a neutral site, but Illinois plays in Champaign, two hours south of the Windy City.

The Tigers already played one Chicago-based squad this year, when DePaul prevailed 80-76 at Auburn Arena Nov. 30.

The Fighting Illini, which won its first 12 games before going down to Auburn’s new SEC colleague Missouri last Saturday, will be an even mightier test.

“The entire team is capable of making 3-point shot and can go off,” Auburn coach Tony Barbee said. “They have a nice complement of an inside-outside game. They are a very talented team.”

The Illini put up 76.6 points per game, helped by a team average of nearly 10 3-pointers every time out. They’re led by veteran guard Brandon Paul, who broke out last year in a stunning 43-point outburst to defeat eventual Final Four crasher Ohio State.

Paul’s been more consistent his senior year under new coach John Groce, developing into the Big Ten’s No. 2 leading scorer at 19.2 points per game.

Auburn has nailed 65 triples all year. Paul has 35 by himself.

“He has the ultimate green light, has NBA range and can get to the basket,” Barbee said. “We need to keep him out of the paint and guard him beyond the 3-point line.”

Three other Illini starters alongside Paul return from last year’s disappointing outfit, which cost coach Bruce Weber his job.

The Tigers went 3-3 on their latest homestand, and had created some momentum with a three-game winning streak (stunted by a lackluster loss to Winthrop) behind the scoring spree of Shaw product and junior guard Chris Denson. “CD3” is averaging 17.0 points and shooting a sizzling 57.5 percent from the floor in four games since being ruled academically eligible.

Sullivan, a senior guard, is good on 17 consecutive free throws, somewhat saving him from a shooting slump. He’d love nothing more than to snap out of it on one of basketball’s biggest stages, against one of Auburn’s toughest opponents this season.

“It is very exciting,” said Sullivan, whose 16.9 points ranks fourth among qualified SEC scorers. “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.”

It’s a homecoming for Auburn freshman Brian Greene Jr., a Chicago native who played high school ball at Thornton Township in Harvey, Ill.

Senior forward Chubb has averaged 7.3 points and 5.5 boards in December, seeing his scoring and rebounding average dip one full point and rebound this month. He finished the cupcake part of the non-conference schedule – battling small-ish opponents – with 9.2 points and 7.4 boards.

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